Michael Osborn – Hangin’ On | Album Review

Michael Osborn – Hangin’ On

2018, Checkerboard Records

10 songs | 43 minutes

Michael Osborn is probably best known for a 13-year stint the guitarist in John Lee Hooker’s band, also penning “Spellbound,” a track off of Hooker’s 1998 Grammy-winning Don’t Look Back. Based in Portland, Oregon, Osborn has also shared the stage and/or recorded with the likes of Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, Chris Cain, Carlos Santana, Charlie Musselwhite, Elvin Bishop, Albert Collins, and James Cotton. He’s been nominated three times by the Cascade Blues Association for “Best Blues Guitarist,” and once for “Best Blues Recording,” for his CD release of Touch Tone. As a member of Bill Rhoades and the Party Kings, Osborn has taken home 7 awards for Best Traditional Blues Band and, was inducted into the Cascade Blues Association’s Hall of Fame as a member of that band. He’s a talented player, and no matter how you look at it, that’s a pretty impressive rap sheet!

Hangin’ On is Osborn’s eighth recording released under his own name and the fifth on his own label, Checkerboard Records. It features guest appearances by Karen Lovely (songwriter and vocals) and Mitch Kashmar (harmonica and vocals). The ten songs on this collection run the gamut from traditional blues shuffles to R&B ballads to outright rockers. The supporting players on this effort include John Moore (drums), Don Campbell (bass), Dave Fleschner (keys) and special guests Mitch Kashmar (harmonica on 2 songs, vocals on 1) and Karen Lovely (vocals on two songs). One of song also features some killer horns by Joe McCarthy (trumpet), Chris Mercer (tenor sax), and Brad Ulrich (baritone sax).

Throughout the CD, Osborn’s guitar playing feels very much like a “live” performance, and he definitely stretches-out, as if playing to a crowd. Fairly drenched in reverb, Osborn’s playing calls to mind folks like Kid Ramos and Ronnie Earl, albeit with a slightly harder edge, and is often punctuated with an aggressive, rubbery vibrato that makes me smile whenever I hear it. His voice, while not unpleasant, is a bit dry, but the larger issue is the awkwardness – and literalness – of some of his lyrics, with occasional cringeworthy rhymes that tend to undercut the impact of his very solid playing. Nonetheless, he does get his message across.

There’s a nice mix of song styles here, starting with the bouncy, minor shuffle groove of the opener, “Hangin’ On,” a protest song of sorts, with some fine, percussive organ work from fellow Portland resident, Dave Fleschner. Osborn’s solos have a stinging quality and underscore the feeling of desperation conveyed in the lyrics. The next track, “Baby, It’s Your Move,” a minor blues, covers the time-honored tale of a relationship gone sour.

“Fallin’ for You” is a rollicking box shuffle, that features some of Osborn’s stinging guitar, reminiscent of Albert Collins. “Hey Baby,” another minor “relationship gone sour” blues co-written by Osborn and Tom Szell, features Mitch Kashmar on harmonica and vocals, and as always, Kashmar doesn’t disappoint. Both his singing and his playing are perfect for this track.

“When the Blues Comes Around” is an R&B-style ballad co-written by Osborn and Karen Lovely, who handles the vocals on this track. The feel is early Patsy Cline and is a nice complement to some of the more traditional blues forms featured in this collection. The instrumental “Mint Gin” is a slow blues with some more faint echoes of Albert Collins.

By and large, the album’s standout track is “When I Listen to the Blues,” an up-tempo, horn-driven tune with a more complex structure that forces Osborn to solo out of his comfort zone. The result? A real toe-tapper with some very tasty playing! This track has KG Jackson on bass and Dave Mathis on harmonica, trading lead vocals with Osborn. John Moore – also a longtime member of The Drivers – plays drums on all tracks, except for “Between a Tear and a Good Time,” which features Dave Melyan behind the kit, as well as Kashmar on some sweet harmonica backing.

Throughout the CD, Osborn’s fine playing is very enjoyable, and stands up to repeated listening. Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more dynamics in his soloing; once he gets going, he tends to put the pedal to the metal, and he keeps it there through much of the album. The addition of some dynamics would make the extended solos a bit more varied and interesting. And, as with “When I Listen to the Blues,” varying the song structure pushes Osborn into some more challenging, less-traveled territory, and his solos take on a very different character. Those observations aside, Hangin’ On is a fine collection of guitar-centric blues and R&B-styled tunes, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to hear it. Maybe you will, too?

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