11 songs – 56 minutes
Veteran New York singer/harmonica player/guitarist Chris O’Leary is a talented, down-to-earth bluesman who speaks from his heart, and that’s clear as a bell for Gonna Die Tryin’, his latest imprint on the American Showplace label.
A true American hero who spent seven years in the U.S. Marines, O’Leary’s approach deals differently from many harp players on the scene today. After his discharge, he spent six years as front man for Levon Helm’s band, The Barnburners, recorded with Hubert Sumlin and Bill Perry. He delivers straight-ahead blues with a modern feel, aided by horns, which take his sound to another level while giving him space to deliver his ample vocal skills.
This is Chris’ fourth release since successfully making his debut as a solo recording artist in 2010 with Mr. Used To Be. That album earned the 2011 Blues Blast Music Award for best New Artist Debut Release. O’Leary’s most recent work, Live At Blues Now!, was a 2015 2015 BBMA nominee for Live Album Of The Year. He’s backed here by his regular alignment of Chris Vitarello (guitar), Andy Stahl and Chris DiFrancesco (tenor and baritone saxes), Matt Raymond (bass) and Jay Devlin (drums). They’re augmented by Bruce Katz on keys, Vinnie Nobile on trombone and Willa Panvini McCarthy and Libby Cabello on backing vocals.
All of the material here is original, and O’Leary writes about what he knows, some of it humorous, some reeking with images of the battleground, as he paints a clear picture of life in 21st Century America. During the Vietnam era, it wasn’t unusual for a blues artist to record songs about the horrors of war. Today, however, O’Leary is in the minority as he describes current warzones and their effect on valiant folks who serve.
A catchy riff from Vitarello, who’s stellar throughout, introduces “Can’t Help Yourself,” the first cut, the story of Bayonne Bobby, a tattooed ne’er-do-well who’s vowed to settle down with a good woman and make his mother proud. Despite his efforts, however, he simply can’t get out of his own way. O’Leary suggests it’s time to stop trying to be someone else, finishing the number with an electrifying harp solo that stops just short of distortion.
“19₵ A Day” follows with a lyrically rapid-fire take on one of the biggest complaints workers deal with today: companies outsourcing labor to places where folks will toil for the meager wages of the song’s title. The military theme makes its first appearance with references about the government turning its back on disenfranchised veterans who find themselves being shuttled from one agency to another, unable to secure jobs, unless election time is near and politicians actually do something to help in order to sway votes.
“Hook, Line And Sinker,” a love song delivered with a Memphis feel backed by the horn section, follows before the theme darkens once more. “Gonna Die Trying” provides a funky, horrific view of battle using Samson vs. the Philistines for imagery before it evolves into visions of men with guns who have Satan in their ears spurring them on for more bloodshed. He’s got “the rules of engagement and the worst of intentions,” O’Leary says, and “there’s a razor-thin line between righteousness and dyin’.” The theme continues with “Letters From Home,” a seven-minute slow blues opus that details the power of receiving mail and phones from loved ones when at the front line.
“The Devil Drove To Town In A V8 Ford” and “The Machine” are both clever, percolating blues. The first depicts the battle between good and evil with rich visual metaphors, the second being trapped in the pitfalls of everyday working life. O’Leary puts his harp skills on display for the carefully controlled “Walking Contradiction,” which describes a woman who never ceases to amaze, before “Harvest Time,” a love song with a funky Southern feel and lush horn arrangements. The loping “One More Saturday Night” follows before “Tell It To Me Straight” brings the disc to a close.
From the description of the songs above, you’d think that O’Leary’s basically a hard-edged Marine, but don’t be fooled. He’s really a softy at heart. He dedicated the album to his newborn son Jackson, and the pair are depicted in a truly heartwarming image in the packaging.
Gonna Die Tryin’ is full of first-rate musicianship throughout, and O’Leary’s band is definitely a group on the rise. But it’s the material that truly shines. Available from Amazon, iTunes or directly from the label’s website. I’m definitely going to set this album aside for the end of the year and future award consideration.