Annie Mae Records
12 songs – 50 minutes
Veteran West Coast vocalist, saxophonist and songwriter/arranger, Bobby “Hurricane” Spencer started his musical career in Oakland, cutting his teeth in the tough chitlin’ circuit of the Bay Area, although he now calls LA home. Which perhaps makes the funky opener to Hurricane Unleashed, “Gotta Get Back to Chicago”, slightly unexpected. It is however a fine opening statement, with Spencer’s husky, time-worn voice subverting the listener’s expectations as he sings: “I’m here in California, where the sun always shines, but a California woman is driving me outta my mind. I gotta get back to Chicago, California just won’t do. I gotta find a Chicago woman, one whose love is really true.”
Spencer’s muscular, melodic tenor sax playing can be heard on records by Timex Social Club, Sonny Rhodes, JJ Bad Boy Jones, and Jimmy McCracklin, amongst others, and his songs have been recorded by the likes of Koko Taylor. Over the years, he has played with a veritable Who’s Who of blues musicians, including Etta James, the Whispers, Carla Thomas, Lowell Fulsom, and ZZ Hill. He has also been a full time teacher in the Los AngelesUnifiedSchool District for nearly 30 years.
Hurricane Unleashed contains touches of many of the different genres that Spencer has played in the past, from the shuffle blues of “Camarillo” (featuring some fine vocal scatting from Spencer) to the soul of “You’re All I Need” and the gospel hints of “Lover’s Hill” in which Spencer implores: “So, if you’ve lost a lover, you don’t have to look no further. You’ve got to meet me up on lover’s hill.” The backing vocals of Kelly Chappue, Bosa Mora and Dominique Toney are particularly impressive on this track.
The majority of the songs are written by Spencer himself. There are however two classic instrumental covers on the album. Grover Washington, Jr’s easy listening jazz instrumental “Magic” features Spencer exuberantly “putting some dirt on it.” The second cover is a fine version of Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk”, which starts out relatively faithful to the original before Spencer’s powerful solo starts trading licks with LesterLands’ guitar, all the time retaining the good humour and swing of the Doggett’s version.
In the guitar-centric world of modern blues, it is wonderful to have sax players like Spencer to remind us of the power and joy of great horn playing. He also has a warm, sensuous singing voice, capable of injecting knowing tongue-in-cheek humour at will, such as on “Little Mama” where he sings “Little mama, you know you are so cool. The way you wear those skinny jeans, mama, is nothin’ but cruel.”
Spencer’s first-class band includes Andrea Balestra and LesterLands on guitar, Matias Alvear Fall on bass, Dario Benzoni on drums and Mo Beeks on keyboards. Albert Trepagnier, Jr adds congas and Tyler Combs contributes vibes. The other horns on the record include Josh Agular (trumpet) and Wesley Smith (alto sax).
Hurricane Unleashed is Spencer’s second solo album, after 2003’s I Got The Blues and it’s a fine representation of his playing and singing skills. It is however also a slightly curious release, comprising eight new recordings and four “bonus” tracks from I Got The Blues. Spencer is clearly a capable songwriter and it would have been great to have heard more of his originals, or even some different covers.
That minor issue should not however dissuade you from giving Hurricane Unleashed a listen. If you like blues with a heavy dash of soul and funk, topped off some top-of-the-range sax playing, you will like this.