11 tracks; 52 minutes
Chicago harmonica great Billy Branch has been absent from the recording scene for a long time although he is a regular in the clubs in his home town. His first Blind Pig album makes up for that absence with what is definitely a contender for album of the year. The core of The Sons Of Blues have been together for many years: Billy on vocals and harp, Nick Charles on bass, Moses Rutues on drums and Sumito ‘Ariyo’ Ariyoshi on piano were in the band I saw at Rosa’s Lounge in 2007, only guitarist Dan Carelli is of more recent vintage!
A variety of guests appear: Ronnie Baker Brooks (guitar and vocals) and Johnny Iguana (organ) appear on one track each; Justin Jon Kopp plays upright bass and Billy Dickens electric bass on one track each and Andrew “Blaze” Thomas replaces Moses on two cuts. A three man horn section of Bill McFarland (trombone), Hank Ford (tenor sax) and Kenny Anderson (trumpet) add their power to three tracks and a trio of female singers (Mae Koen, Nanette Frank and Nadima) add backing vocals to four. On one track cello and violin are added by ‘Mello Cello’ and Anne Harris; Oggie Merced, James Cowan and Peter Yale add percussion to two tracks.
The material blends six of Billy’s originals plus one by Ariyo with four ‘classics’. The place to start is with the title track which from the off is an instant classic in its own right and a contender for ‘Song Of The Year’ when the Blues Blast awards come round. Propelled by the horns, further driven by some ace slide guitar work from Dan and topped off with a storming solo from Billy, the song pounds along, wittily describing the effect that the blues can have on you: “It ain’t pneumonia and it ain’t the flu but you can’t shake it once it gets hold of you. Ain’t but the one thing that you got, a crazy little feeling called Blues Shock”. Yes, Billy, once this music grabs you it’s hard to resist; this is a dancefloor filler for certain, even picking up the riff from “Knock On Wood” to close the song!
However, Billy has not finished with strong songs for this album as “Going To See Miss Gerri One More Time” is another wonderful effort, a complete contrast to the title track, a slow elegy to the late Miss Gerri Oliver who ran the Palm Tavern for over 50 years. Billy’s lyrics tell of Gerri’s migration from the south and how she established herself in Chicago, making the Palm the place to go for generations of Chicagoans, including many famous names of the music scene. Musically the song is superb, Ariyo’s piano at the core, alongside Johnny Iguana’s Hammond and the strings and backing singers, the combination making an elegant ballad which is sung excellently by Billy. Equally moving without the need for words is the closing instrumental “Song For My Mother” in which Billy’s lovely playing is echoed by Ariyo’s piano while the band move along in lilting latin fashion.
Elsewhere Billy has some fun on “Baby Let Me Butter Your Corn”, a thinly disguised piece of innuendo taken at terrific pace with the horns at full tilt and relates some of the history of his band in almost rap fashion on the opener “Sons Of Blues”, a co-write with the poet Sterling Plumpp. “Slow Moe” is a vehicle for Moses Rutues to take the vocal mike, a real old-fashioned ‘down in the alley’ piece with terrific harp and piano and a guest appearance as ‘the nagging woman’ by Priscilla McDonald. Ariyo’s “Back Alley Cat” may well be written for his boss as Billy’s harp leads the way on a short but playful little number.
The four covers are also interesting choices. One might argue that Willie Dixon’s “Crazy Mixed Up World” and John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” have been covered so often that they are best avoided. However, Billy produces high quality and exciting versions of both songs which are no doubt crowd favourites at his shows. Bobby Bryant’s “Dog House” is an amusing piece with Ronnie Baker Brooks guesting on guitar and sharing vocals with Billy. Billy’s opening harp sounds like a dog howling and Ronnie’s guitar answers in kind before the two trade verses about how they have fallen from grace with their ladies. Shorty Long’s “Function At The Junction” (a co-write with Holland/Dozier/Holland) was a minor hit in 1966 and the band go at it hard throughout on a real stomper on which Dan’s guitar and Ariyo’s piano both feature strongly and the backing singers play an important role.
It may have been fifteen years since his last recording but Billy has certainly nailed it here on a well-crafted and consistently excellent album which comes highly recommended.