Neil Barnes – Bald Guy with a Lot on His Mind
Bar-B-Q Sound Recordings BBQSR 2020
10 songs – 45 minutes
San Francisco-based harp player Neil Barnes pulls out all the stops for his latest CD, enlisting the services of studio wizards Kid Anderson and Big Jon Atkinson and assembling an all-star lineup to deliver a set of the tastiest West Coast blues you’ll hear this year.
A product of the ‘60s influenced by Paul Butterfield and Lee Oskar, he was so enamored of the playing of Charlie Musselwhite that he caught as many of his shows as he could and then actually took a private lesson from him after getting up the courage to ask for one. His primary teacher, however, was the exceptionally gifted Gary Smith, the godfather of the South Bay Area blues scene.
He’s has been a recording artist since fronting the band Bar-B-Que Barnes and the Rib-Tones in the early ‘80s, a group that gigged with San Francisco stalwarts Johnny Waters and Sonny Lane and recorded 45s with keyboard player Little Willie Littlefield, the first man ever to record “Kansas City,” as well as guitarists Ron Thompson and Junior Watson and bassist Bill Stuve, the longtime member of Rod Piazza’s band. A self-titled EP followed a few years later before Barnes began working in an acoustic duo.
A deserving, but under-recorded artist who shies away from the microphone, Neil’s released two CDs in the past decade, This Was Then Now in 2012 and the well-received Hyde and Seek in 2014, an album that featured contributions from soul/gospel superstar Earl Thomas and Lady Bianca, a veteran of Sly & the Family Stone and Van Morrison, on vocals.
Barnes has devoted most of his time behind the scenes producing works for other artists — most recently a digital gospel release for Lady Bianca, but this one was recorded at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios, Big Jon Atkinson’s at Bigtone Studios and Hyde Park Studios. Both Thomas and Lady B. return on vocals along with the sultry Lauren Halliwell and former Candye Kane guitarist Kyle Jester.
The lineup’s chockful of talent, including Johnny Cat Soubrand (Terry Hanck Band), Andersen, Atkinson and Thompson in some of his final recordings on guitar, Sid Morris, Lady B. and Paul Smith on keyboards, June Core, Winfred Williams and Robi Bean on drums, Mike Phillips, Oshmin O. Oden and Vance Elhers on bass.
Propelled by a funky bass line from Phillips, the sweet, original instrumental “Going to Greaseland (aka Cruisin’ Down Crystal Ridge)” swings from the jump to open with Morris leading the action on keys and Barnes providing harp accents before Soubrand and Andersen trade licks as they join the action. Halliwell rich alto debuts for the first time on a stellar, blues-drenched, unhurried cover of Dinah Washington’s “I Don’t Hurt Anymore.”
Lady B. and Thomas take charge on the mic — sharing vocals with Bianca on keys — for the gospel-tinged “Rough Side of the Mountain” – the first of two consecutive previously tunes that went unreleased after the Hide and Seek sessions. She’s aided by Thompson’s low-end runs on six-string. He adds an interesting, minor-key lead in “Sugar Mamma,” next. It’s a stripped-down blues in which Neil’s harp skills shine accompanied only by drums.
Halliwell’s back in charge for a full-bore blues redo of The Band’s “Ophelia” before an instrumental take on Chuck Berry’s “Deep Feeling.” Once the B-side to “School Day,” Barnes is front and center on this one, delivering powerful single-note runs. His original, “Placerville Gold,” which follows with Jester at the mic, draws its inspiration from Neil’s wife, who once owned a coffee shop in town in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
“Wait, Wait, Wait” – a tune first recorded by Tracy Nelson when she was a member of Mother Earth in the ‘60s – follows before a take on Ray Charles’ “Funny but I Still Love You” with Halliwell more than holding her own on both. The disc concludes with Jester delivering the original, “Along Came the Blues,” a down-to-earth reminder that no matter how good things are going right now, they could change in a heartbeat.
Like Hide and Seek six years ago, Bald Guy with a Lot on His Mind is a pleaser on all counts and a welcome addition to any blues lover’s collection.