Al Ross & the Planets – Blue Crystal
CD: 8 Songs, 39 Minutes
Styles: Ensemble Blues, Mellow Blues, All Original Songs
Blue Crystal, the newest remarkable release from the UK’s Al Ross and the Planets, has a lot of good things going for it. It’s mellow, moody, and the perfect background music at a nightclub where the lighting and décor remain a deep shade of sapphire. However, to paraphrase a Wendy’s commercial from the 1980s: “Where’s the blues?” You’ll have to listen hard to find it. One’s best bet is track seven, “Checking out the Vibe,” as close to a blues rocker as this CD offers. It’s got rumbling, earthy guitar, a danceable beat, and hot horns to complement Al Ross’ throw-down vocals. Several of the other original selections are heavy on piano and pensive atmosphere. They remind me of the best tunes of the Steve Miller Band, seamlessly blending jazz, blues, and soul. That’s why they’re worth hearing. If you’re looking for a party album, though, the vibe on this one may not be right. Is it a cocktail party? Go ahead and start it up.
In the early ‘90s, Al Ross & The Planets were one of the most popular live bands in London. Laura Lee Davies (Time Out London Music Editor) claimed that seeing a live Planets gig was “one of the best nights out in London.” In 2018, the band got back together to record a number of their original songs at Abbey Road studios, and to start performing again at venues across the UK including The Half Moon, Boisdale, The Cavern Club, The Troubadour, Kensington Roof Gardens and The Hard Rock Cafe. Their debut album, The Planets One, was released to critical acclaim. In January 2020, the band returned to Abbey Road to record a new batch of songs written by Al Ross and Alex Mungo. Halfway through recording, COVID-19 struck. Members would soon be sidelined by the virus, travel around London became forbidden, and — when sessions did finally resume in May — there was a long list of safety measures.
As band members became unable to take part, Al hired various session players to fill the gaps. He asked his longtime friend Lyndon Connah to play keyboards and assist with production. Connah’s extensive resume includes work with George Michael, Joe Cocker, Nik Kershaw, and Go West. Next, Anthony Broza at Wienerworld suggested blues guitarist Norman Beaker. A native of Manchester, Norman has been involved with the British blues scene since the 1960s and has toured and/or recorded with Van Morrison, Chuck Berry, and B.B. King, among many others. Additional musicians on Blue Crystal include Tansy Garrod (violin), Paul Jefferies (double bass), Jamie Masters (guitar), Holly Petrie (backing vocals), Jamie Wall (trumpet), Alex Ward (lead guitar), and the Sing Gospel Choir.
Another song I’d like to recommend is the opener, “Crossroads.” It sounds nothing like the version every blues fan knows, but rather a gorgeous meditation on “the point of no return.” With the craziness in the world today, to what or whom can we cling? The ones we love. “I remember you,” sings the ensemble in lyrical harmony, bringing CSNY to mind, “the things you do, the things we said. I will make it through, and thoughts of you go through my head.”
Blue Crystal may not be what most people think of as blues, but it sure is lovely!