Phantom Blues Band – Still Cookin’ – Album Review

Phantom Blues Band – Still Cookin’

VizzTone Label Group VTP-002

12 songs – 49 minutes

Based out of Southern California, Phantom Blues Band has come a long way since Taj Mahal assembled its members to back him for his Dancin’ the Blues album in 1993. Composed of several of the top sessions players on the West Coast, they’ve served as his large touring ensemble ever since. But after winning two Grammy Awards behind Taj, this group simply was too good to keep in the shadows.

They’ve been a major draw at concerts and festivals around the globe since cutting their debut album – a highly prized, limited-release CD under their new name – in 2003, and their roster has walked away from the Blues Music Awards podium with more trophies than one man could hold.

Phantom smokes from the jump of the opening bars of Still Cookin’, their second mainstream release on VizzTone after two previous CDs on Delta Groove, delivering a mix of easy-greasy, blues-drenched R&B that ranges from Texas roadhouse hot to Memphis soul smooth with a taste of reggae to spice things up. The self-produced CD was recorded by the band’s guitarist, Johnny Lee Schell, at his Ultratone Studio in Studio City, Calif. A native Texan, Schell learned his skills alongside Norman Petty, the man responsible for producing Buddy Holly.

The all-star, six-piece lineup includes several of the most familiar faces in the industry, including percussionist Tony Braunagel — who’s toured regularly with Eric Burdon, Rickie Lee Jones and Bette Midler, and keyboard player Mike Finnigan – whose credits include work with Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Etta James and a host of others. Both men currently back Phantom, Taj and Bonnie Raitt, too.

Houston native bassist Larry Fulcher began his musical career in the church before recording with Smokey Robinson and The Crusaders. A gifted keyboard player and guitarist, too, he spent years in Jamaica with Peter Tosh, Third World and The Wailers, and he’s a member of Ruthie Foster’s band, too. Holding down the horns are Joe Sublett (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Fabulous Thunderbirds) on sax and Les Lovitt (Herbie Hancock, Glenn Frye) on trumpet.

Augmenting the sound of seven originals and five covers are honorary bandmate Darrell Leonard (trumpet), Jeff Paris (piano) and Maxayn Lewis (backing vocals) and Lenny Castro (percussion). Lead vocals are shared among Larry, Johnny and Mike throughout.

Steve Cropper and Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Fight It” opens the action. A steady shuffle first recorded in 1965, it’ll have you sliding to the dance floor as the trio urge you to feel the groove. The Paris penned “Stop Runnin’” features Fulcher. It’s a Southern soul pleaser that finds the singer awakening and rushing downstairs as his lady’s set to leave for the final time. Schell’s at the mike for “Wingin’ My Way,” which has a Delta feel. It describes a man who’s new to Hollywood with his eyes set on stardom.

One of the most soulful voices on the planet, Finnigan’s in charge for the percussive “Just in Case,” which assures a loved one that he’ll never miss a beat as he hits the road to keep a roof over her head, and the unhurried ballad, “Blues How They Linger,” one of two tunes in the set penned by David Egan. The action heats up immediately for the medium-fast, reggae-flavored “Shine On” with Larry joining to share the mike.

“Better But Not Good” comes across with a Big Easy feel before the entire ensemble serve as a choir on the break for “Tequila Con Yerba,” an instrumental that will definitely have folks in Mexico City and Latin America cutting a rug. The band serve up a warning in “Bad Blood,” which advises against burning their cattle in the field or messing with their fish pond because there’s nowhere to hide.

The Memphis-flavored “Fess on Up,” another Egan creation, urges listeners to tell the truth to their baby because they need some “inside help” before a cover of Buddy Johnson’s 1953 R&B hit, “I’m Just Your Fool” and the Sublett-penned ballad “I Was Blind” bring the album to an introspective close.

No matter what they call themselves, other groups may be their equal, but there’s no band better in the world today that Phantom. Pick this one up. Believe me, you won’t be sorry. And don’t forget to tell your friends!

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