11 songs – 44 minutes
“The truth is, I didn’t discover the blues…. It discovered me.” This may be true for many blues fans and musicians around the world, but it comes as something of a surprise when spoken by Russell Keefe, long-time keyboardist for Les McKeown’s legendary Bay City Rollers. Many people (in the UK, at least) associate the Bay City Rollers with slightly saccharine early-1970s pop music. By contrast, Dead Men Don’t Pray is a powerful and highly enjoyable slab of muscular, modern blues-rock played by Keefe’s new band, TBelly.
Al Richardson’s choppy solo harmonica riff opens the first track on the album, “Tie It On My Face”, quickly joined by drums and a superb bouncing bass line before the vocals and other instruments help to build up a driving, classic rock song. The band is a top drawer ensemble, playing with a delicate balance of authority and edge-of-the-seat abandon. Kevin Magill and Riad Abji form a rock solid rhythm section (the groove on the title track could wake the dead, even if they don’t then pray), with Debs Bonomini adding backing vocals and acoustic guitar. Ross Ian Lardner contributes a number of superb, melodic guitar solos on tracks like “I’ll Get You Home” and “Best Out Of You”. The electric guitar is the primary solo instrument on the album, which is perhaps a shame, not as any criticism of Lardner, but simply because Keefe is clearly a first-rate ivory tickler and it would have been good to hear him stretch out himself on occasion. Instead, the keys add flashes of supportive color to songs like “Where’s The Doctor”, “Dead Men Don’t Pray” and “Lie In The Desert”. What Keefe does bring to this particular party however is his songwriting and his voice.
He wrote or co-wrote 10 of the songs on the album (Lardner contributed “Respectable Man” and co-wrote “Broken” with Keefe) and there isn’t a dud on display. With clever lyrics and a nice line in half-rhymes (“Nearly free, I have one foot out of the grave. So for the rest of my days, there’ll be times when the dead men don’t pray.”), memorable vocal melodies (the unexpected line over the acoustic guitar introduction to “Best Out Of You” is particularly catching) and intelligently written tracks (“Night At The Ritz” goes from jazz to rock and back to jazz with élan), many of which benefit from catchy choruses (perhaps some of that BCR influence did rub off after all), the songs all stand by themselves. When combined with Keefe’s voice, however, they evolve into something altogether different. Keefe is blessed with a deep, rough-hewn voice that comes from the same stable as Tom Waits, Joe Cocker and John Campbell whilst retaining its own timbre and tone. Another point of reference could be the great Lee Brilleaux, whose voice carried a similar undercurrent of danger and violence, even on the rare love songs that Dr Feelgood recorded.
This is blues-rock in the best sense of the term. It is not an album of over-played, over-driven, simplistic twaddle. It is album of maturity and depth, played with emotional sincerity and technical prowess.
Dead Men Don’t Pray was recorded at Brighton Electric Studios in England and Paul “Win” Winstanley deserves kudos for capturing a superb sound. The album is also nicely packaged in a smart cardboard gatefold sleeve. Altogether, it is a very impressive effort from TBelly. If you like your rock with a heavy slice of blues in every track, this album is for you.