Chris “Bad News” Barnes – Live
VizzTone Label Group VT-CB18
13 songs – 54 minutes
Based out of Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, comedian-turned-singer Chris “Bad News” Barnes enlisted the big guns for this live set, which was captured in the middle of the Caribbean aboard last winter’s sailing of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise.
Produced by Grammy Award winner Tony Braunagel and engineered by Johnny Lee Schell, his partner in both the Taj Mahal and Phantom Blues Bands, it features a stellar alignment that includes Philadelphia-based harp player Steve Guyger, who rose to prominence in the ‘70s while backing Chicago legend Jimmy Rogers, and guitarist Gary Hoey, one of the hottest performers on the blues-rock circuit today.
A writer and comic whose credits include work with Carol Burnett, Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm, Barnes was a member of the legendary Second City comedy troupe in Chicago, logging more than 2,000 performances. He turned to music after serving as the opening act at the long-running Manhattan club Tramps, where he regularly improvised blues tunes after taking suggestions from the audience.
A native of Scranton, Pa., this is Barnes’ third release as a bluesman following his 2015 debut, 90 Proof Truth, backed by a full band gathered from the Blues Brothers, David Letterman, Cyndi Lauper and Bob Dylan bands. His 2017 follow-up, Hokum Blues, delivered risqué tunes from the ‘30s and ‘40s in a lineup that included longtime Conan O’Brien bandleader Jimmy Vivino and Letterman bassist Will Lee.
The roster here is equally impressive, rounded out by Sandy MacDonald on keyboards, A.J. Pappas on bass and Matt Scurfield on drums, Roomful of Blues horn players Mark Earley (sax) and Doug Woolverton (trumpet) and backup vocals delivered by Gracie Curran, Melodye Perry and Kudisan Kai. Although primarily a set of familiar covers, the musicianship is first-rate throughout.
After a brief introduction by SiriusXM deejay Big Llou Johnson, Barnes launches into “Back in a Cadillac,” a driving shuffle first recorded by Coco Montoya. The band gets plenty of space to shine as Chris powers through the vocals, snapping off the lyrics with slightly road-worn pipes. An uptempo, horn-fueled take on Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” follows before Little Walter’s “Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)” fires out of the gate, aided by extended, incendiary mid-tune solos from Guyger, Earley and Hoey.
“Hungry & Horny,” a stop-time parody original based on Earl King’s “Come On,” features a female chorus as it reprises a tune that appeared on Barnes’ first CD. Hoey’s solo smokes. A slow-paced, loping take of Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” feature Barnes at his vocal best and more blistering solos before “Going Down,” penned by Don Nix and made famous by Freddie King, recounts a tumble from a second-story window.
West Coast harmonica Paul DeLay’s slow blues, “What’s Coming Next,” anticipates oncoming tragedy before Barnes delivers a little hokum with “It’s Tight Like That,” a song written by Thomas Dorsey before he found religion and founded gospel music. Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy, both stars in the ‘40s, are represented with “It Hurts Me Too” and “Keep Your Mind on It” before the set gets more current to close with takes on George Thorogood’s “I Drink Alone,” the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” and Steve Cropper’s “Raise Your Hand,” a ‘60s chart-topper for co-writer Eddie Floyd.
Sure, there’s no fresh material on this one, but it’s no joke: Barnes holds his own as a vocalist, and this band simply smokes. You’ll have a good time listening, and the material’s familiar enough to sing along, too!