Barry – 2016
9 Tracks; 49 minutes
It is not often you get to review a moment in time. Recently, I’ve had two opportunities. First I had the privilege of reviewing John Mayall Live in 1967 and now I am reviewing a genuine article of the golden age of electric blues, Big Smokey Smothers. The notes from The Crown’s band leader Paul Barry said that they backed Smokey on this recording in 1992. Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers died a year later from heart disease. So this CD truly has captured a snapshot of a blue great.
The fact that he was not in the best of health is reflected in his vocals on this album. His voice is still expressive, still capable of nuance and emotional connection. But it is not quite fully robust. That, however, should not diminish your enjoyment of an album done in the classic Chicago Blues style. This is proudly old school, led by a musician who knows what that means.
This CD is as much about Paul Barry and The Crowns as Big Smokey. To do this kind of blues well takes a group of musicians who have an instinctual feel for it. The Crowns are certainly up to it. They support Big Smokey without overwhelming him while still providing a full blues band sound around him.
It starts with the title track, “That’s Alright” which shuffles along just like a Chicago Blues tune should. Paul Barry’s harp darts in and out with sweet fills, nicely buoyed by special guest pianist Thomas Mahon. This tune swings along and sets up the tone for the entire album.
Track 3, “Take A Little Walk With Me” follows in the tradition of Robert Johnson and other early blues men who took verses or snippets of verses that were already in existence and crafted a new song around them. You can hear a lot of influences in this tune with a healthy dose of “Sweet Home Chicago”. And like Johnson’s version, you can hear both Chicago and the Mississippi delta – acoustic country blues licks, interpreted through an electric slide guitar.
“41st Street Boogie” closes out the six tunes on this CD with Big Smokey Smothers, and it is a nice barrel-house piano piece with The Crowns filling in where they to with harp and guitar.
The last three tracks on the album feature The Crown’s own front man, Bobby Johnson. Johnson’s voice is a little stronger than Big Smokey’s, but not quite as expressive. Still, the three tracks reveal a traditional blues band serving the songs and the genre well. This is the kind of album you put on when you have a few friends over for a mellow evening. So smooth … mm, mm, mm.