Andrew Alli – Hard Workin’ Man | Album Review

Andrew Alli – Hard Workin’ Man

EllerSoul Records

36 minutes, 12 songs

The Blues is heritage music. It is music that is passed down from the old guard to the youngbloods either in person or by recorded inspiration. Many youngblood musicians try to sound like the old masters with varying degrees of success. And often young-uns abandon the pure Blues before their style is fully developed in favor of more commercial success with Rock or Pop oriented hybrids. But there are some true devotees who have fully digested the “raw fat tone(d)” soul food of the heritage and are then able to create something completely within the canon and also fully modern and personal; Alvin Youngblood Hart, Pokey LaFarge, Rhiannon Giddens, Shemekia Copeland, “Monster” Mike Welch and the tragically departed Michael Ledbetter just to name a few. Richmond, VA native, Andrew Alli can officially be counted among this group. Alli’s dazzling debut Hard Workin’ Man is a fully realized artistic statement of Blues, played in a traditional way, that honors the heritage while also being thoroughly personal and unique.

Andrew Alli is a harmonica player. A student of the instrument, Alli plays with the depth of range, haunting tone and classy economy that exemplified the masters who he covers on this record: George “Harmonica” Smith, “Big” Walter Horton and Little Walter. Alli’s harp knowledge is deep. In his playing also lives shades of the clarion horn blasts of Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), the ecstatic zoom of Junior Wells and the nimble big toned facility of William Clarke. But Alli’s blowing is his own. Amplified, ragged and grinding dissolves into clean, swinging and beatific. Alli complements his harp revolution with a strong Blues holler. Singing and blowing work in perfect call and response. Going for broke with every phrase, Alli testifies his Blues with conviction and confidence.

Hard Workin’ Man was recorded at Bigtone Studio in Bristol, VA by owner, engineer and front line Real Deal Bluesman “Big” Jon Atkinson. Atkinson plays guitar and bass and helps Alli create, as is stated on the album packaging, a “raw fat tone.” What contributes to that tone is that this record is mixed in mono, meaning the sound is as big and sturdy as an Appalachian mountain range. Ramping up the authenticity, Alli and Atkinson wisely employed the piano wizard Carl Sonny Leyland in support. Leyland is one of the few dozen piano players alive who understands the complexity, sensitivity and depth of harmony and melody required to play like Sunnyland Slim, Little Brother Montgomery and Pinetop Perkins. It’s hard not to think about the late great Barrelhouse Chuck when listening to Leyland’s pitch perfect playing. Danny Michel on guitar offering harmonic counterpoint and drummers Devin Neel and Buddy Honeycutt lay down the kind of rocking, swinging understated  powerhouse foundation needed for this type of music.

So what does the music sound like? It is fully realized, original music (only 3 covers) played in the post-war Blues style of Helena, Memphis and Chicago. The title track pounds the listener out of the gate with menacing stop time pummels that makes one think the hard work is being done in some mid evil mine. Jazzy solos swing out of the clang and boom to whip the song into a frenzy. Slow Blues “30 Long Years” is a claustrophobic response to Eddie Boyd’s “5 Long Years.” Except instead of the misogynistic missteps that often befall Blues lyricism, the enlightened millennial Alli sings about how his town has let him down and his need to move on. The roiling Latin-esq “Going Down South,” featuring fluid slide guitar, finds Alli singing into his harp mic. The effect is eerie and blurs the line between vocal cords and harp. Little Walter’s “One More Chance” is a delicate plea for one more romantic shot. The band swings and Alli blows a nimble harp that never overloads the ear but also keeps the song ablaze.

Hard Workin’ Man has 4 instrumental tracks, all of which are based on the 12 bar Blues. This is a third of the record, and the first instrumental is the second track on the album! In less capable hands this could be a nightmare of boring, uninspired open mic night style jamming. Not for Alli and company. These instrumentals (3 originals and one cover of Big Walter’s “Walters Sun”) are taut, disciplined, melodically rich and harmonically satisfying. Style and form are varied creating integral parts of this excellently crafted album. The seemingly effortless courage and sheer force of artistic will to put these instrumentals in the sequence the way they are is indicative of the unapologetic and specific nature of this record.

Hard Workin’ Man is a fierce raw statement of individual vision standing right at odds with, and fully disregarding of, larger mainstream music trends. This is real, deeply emotional music played by master technicians at their best. If you are a Blues fan of any sort, listen to this record and find out what a true and clean expression of the music can be.

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