15 songs – 70 minutes
Jim Suhler is an interesting one. Almost a Texas institution, his biting yet melodic guitar playing and smart, sassy song-writing should have made him a household name a long time ago. Unfortunately, the fates sometimes conspire against the best efforts of us mortals. As a result, despite the fact that Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat have been garnering rave reviews for over 22 years now, Suhler may actually be better known as George Thorogood’s lead guitar player, rather than the leader of one of the best blues/rock/roots bands currently on the circuit. (As an aside, an oft over-looked fact about Thorogood is that he used his Live Aid performance in 1985 to publicize the blues. While every musician at the show deserves praise for performing for a very laudable cause, Thorogood also recognized a opportunity to introduce the largest TV audience in the world to his own blues heroes, inviting Albert Collins and Bo Diddley to share the stage with him and giving them both some priceless PR. No other artist did this.)
Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat’s latest release, Live At The Kessler, captures the band’s blistering performance at the Kessler Theater in Dallas, Texas, on 28 November 2015, underscoring yet again the authority of their live shows. Featuring 13 tracks that originally appeared on the studio albums Panther Burn, Tijuana Bible, Bad Ju Ju and Suhler’s solo acoustic release, Dirt Road, together with two new songs: “Doin’ The Best I Can” and “Reverie”, Live At The Kessler is a superb picture of a moment in time as Suhler and his compadres tear the place down.
Kicking off with the upbeat shuffle of “I Declare”, the band immediately settles into an ass-kicking groove, highlighted by great solos by both Suhler and pianist Shawn Phares. There are ballads such as “Prayin’ For Rain” and the outstanding instrumental, “My Morning Prayer”. There are upbeat dancing numbers like “Scattergun”, “Doin’ The Best I Can” (with its hilarious opening couplet of “I can’t play like B.B. King. When I try, I break a string. But … I’m doin’ the best I can”) and the Slim Harpo-esque “Restless Soul”. And there are quieter acoustic moments such as “Texasippi” (with Tex Lovera’s cigar box interlacing with Suhler’s guitar for added texture) and the dreamy “Reverie”, which also features a guest appearance by Tim Alexander on keyboards.
Monkey Beat, with Chris Alexander on bass and vocals, Shawn Phares on keyboards and Beau Chadwell on drums, are masters of the dynamics of a song, knowing exactly how to bring the audience along with them on the ride. The introduction to “Sunday Drunk” stretches out over a leisurely one and half minutes before erupting into the smoking rock’n’roll of the first verse.
The band plays with transparent fire, coming across at times like a cross between early ZZ Top (the Reverend Billy G. must be furious that he didn’t come up the riff to “Tijuana Bible” himself) and early Rory Gallagher (in both the thoughtful lyrics to the songs and the slashing slide guitar on tracks like “Doin’ The Best I Can”). Suhler’s voice combines vulnerability with intelligence and suits the songs to a tee.
There is nothing pretentious or overly-serious about Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat. Live At The Kessler is a top-notch recording of a stellar good-time blues/roots/rock’n’roll band, playing music to drink and dance to. Glorious stuff.