10 songs – 43 minutes
For many years, Big Joe Fitz has been one of the leading figures of the Hudson Valley music scene in New York as both a radio presenter and a musician. His first CD, This Is Big, was released back in 2010. His latest release, Shoulda Known Better, follows a similar formula to This Is Big, being a collection of blues and soul covers (some well-known classics, some obscure), played with deep emotional honesty combined with an easy-going vitality.
Fitz sings and adds harmonica and acoustic guitar to a few tracks. Primarily, however, his voice is backed by The Lo-Fi’s, an absolutely belting band featuring Robert Bard on bass, Mark Dziuba on guitar and Chris Bowman on drums. Jumpin’ Jack Strobel adds piano to “Today I Started Loving You Again” and Jeremy Baum contributes organ and keys to four other songs. Together, the musicians lay down a variety of grooves over which Fitz’s fine vocals reveal differing degrees of love, pain, anger and vulnerability.
The album opens with a jazzy, swinging cover of the Blenders’ wonderful 1953 hit, “Don’t Mess Around With Love”, sounding like something Lynwood Slim would have loved to have done, before moving on to Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away”, which is re-invented as a funky soul number with a fine harp solo from Fitz. Shoulda Known Better contains two tracks by the legendary Bobby “Blue” Bland, “Members Only” and “I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog (The Way You Treated Me)”, which is quite apt. Both Bland and Fitz successfully straddle the line between blues and soul; and both focus on the song rather than on the solos that can be fitted between the verses. That said, Fitz’s version of Sugar Ray Norcia’s “Feeling Blue” features an introduction of just harmonica and guitar that is quite delightful.
Toussaint McCall’s 1967 hit, “Nothing Takes The Place Of You” is given a relatively faithful reading, with lovely backing from Baum’s organ and keys. Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On”, however, is given a rumba treatment and contains one of Fitz’s better vocal performances on an album full of fine vocal performances.
Rick Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” is re-invented as a soul ballad with heavily tremolo’ed guitar, while BB King’s “Never Make Your Move Too Soon” (slightly re-titled here) is played as a gentle, swinging, jazz-tinged blues with top drawer guitar from Dziuba. The album’s final song, Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” (also covered, of course, by Bobby “Blue” Bland) is also given a thorough going-over, re-appearing as a harp and piano-led blues shuffle.
If one were looking to nitpick, it could be said that some of the tracks are incredibly well-known and have already been covered by many different artists and that a few originals might have helped to spice up the album. That however would rather miss the point, which is that Shoulda Known Better is a collection of songs that Big Joe Fitz and the Lo-Fi’s regularly play live and in any event nearly of the better-known songs on the album are given a new lease of life by the inventive readings.
Overall, Shoulda Known Better is a little gem of an album, with great performances of a variety of great songs, all approached with wit, imagination and respect. Highly recommended.