Duke Robillard – They Called It Rhythm & Blues
18 songs, 1 hour and 7 minutes
Duke Robillard is the greatest Blues guitarist of all time. No your reviewer has not lost his mind and it is fully acknowledged that this stance could be controversial and that there are many Blues guitarists, contemporaries and forbearers, who are at equal level to Duke. BUT, the Duke’s prowess, his encyclopedic knowledge, the monument that is his continuing to be undaunted career and his soulful deeply personal style at the heart of it all are pretty undeniable. That is why for Blues fans such as us it is a pure joy that Duke is so prolific. He keeps pumping out consistently thoughtful, creative and entertaining albums.
They Called it Rhythm & Blues is his newest entry into what seems to be a run of loose concept records. Picking up from 2017’s all female sung His Dames of Rhythm, 2019’s classic catchy pop-wise Ear Worms, and 2020’s gut bucket straight up Real Deal Blues Bash, They Called It is a survey of the music that was originally defined in the 50’s and 60’s as R&B. It harkens back to an eclectic time when Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, T-Bone Walker, Etta James and Chuck Berry were all on the R&B charts together.
To help Duke get this concept across he enlisted a host of guest performers, all of whom are veterans of the Blues boom of the 80’s and 90’s. Sue Foley and Mike Flanigin sent their Texas Blues swagger up from Austin. New England legend and running buddy Sugar Ray Norcia added his deep Blues holler and harp. Duke’s former bandmate in the Thunderbirds Kim Wilson offered that distinct West Coast by way of Texas style he is a master of while Michelle “Evil Gal” Wilson absolutely obliterates the soul on her 2 vocals features. And the modern Country Blues legend John Hammond offers 2 devastatingly emotive performances.
Duke Robillard started his career as a band leader founding Roomful of Blues so it’s no surprise that the Duke Robillard Band has been one of the go to institutions for serious Blues sidemen. The current DRB line up is one of the tightest, most talented Blues bands working today. New England veterans all, the band is anchored by the distinguished go-to rhythm section of Marty Ballou on bass and Mark Teixeira on drums. Doug James blowing bari and tenor sax and Bruce Bears tickling the ivories add charge and style. James’ low-end horn is augmented on a few tracks by Mark Earley on sax and Doug Woolverton on trumpet. The feature of the band is DRB vocalist Chris Cote who sings 6 tunes here to Duke’s 3 vocal performances. Cote has a confident and fully realized tenor that perfectly matches and complements Duke’s own vocal bravado and warble.
After years of lugging guitars and standing and delivering the Blues, the wear and tear finally caught up with Duke in the mid 20-teens. After surgery and rehab it was questionable if Duke would still play guitar. He did regain his ability to play but with less speed, slowing him down. In 2020 Duke told Blues Blasts’ Marty Gunther “The fact that I’m able to play at all is simply amazing. But in some ways, it might have improved my playing. There’s not as much flash, and I concentrate more on what the notes mean, which is a good thing — and that’s what older musicians do anyway.”
On They Called it Rhythm & Blues Duke’s words ring true. Gone is some of the facile mind bending speed and precision, the chameleon-like referencing and inhabiting of other guitarists’ styles that characterized Duke’s early work. But stripped bear, Duke’s soulful center, the flourishes of his unique style and instrumental voice that was always present but at times obscured, ring in a way they didn’t before.
Listening to Duke spare with firebrand Sue Foley, or melt in remorse and sadness on “Someday After Awhile,” or jump and wail on “In the Wee Wee Hours,” it is clear that Duke Robillard is undoubtedly a stronger more expressive guitarist than he was as a younger man. As an artist this seems to be the goal, continue to hone and refine your craft while adapting and augmenting your approach to the normal progression of age. Duke has done this with grace, strength and dedication. We are all lucky he still has such a jones for producing music, we all get to age gracefully with him.