Rockwell Avenue Blues Band – Back To Chicago | Album Review

Rockwell Avenue Blues Band – Back To Chicago

Delmark Records DE 854

15 songs – 70 minutes

While the Rockwell Avenue Blues Band might seem to be new kids on the block, they’re anything but. The group is composed of five longtime friends who are all familiar names when it comes to delivering real-deal Chicago blues.

All five are decades-long veterans of several of the most important bands in the business, three are in band leaders themselves, and all have spent a good part of their 200 or so years in the business working together in the ever-changing lineup of The Fabulous Fish Heads, a Chicagoland favorite since the mid-‘80s. As a result, this CD is more of a long-awaited family reunion than anything else.

Taking their name from the location of the legendary Delmark Records studio, where this album was recorded and where they’ve laid down tracks regularly in the past, the band is composed of guitarist/vocalist Steve Freund and harp player/vocalist Tab Robinson, a pair of New Yorkers now residing in the San Francisco Bay area and Indianapolis, Chicago-born keyboard player/vocalist Ken Saydak, who now calls Colorado home, and the Windy City-based rhythm section of bassist Harlan Terson and drummer Marty Binder.

Praised by Rolling Stone for his “masterful, no-nonsense guitar work,” Freund cut his teeth playing behind Hubert Sumlin, Louis Myers and others before becoming a fixture with both Sunnyland Slim and Big Walter Horton. Recognized by Downbeat as one of the “finest living singers of soul blues,” Robinson served as front man of Dave Specter’s Bluebirds, is a popular draw at European festivals and is such a talent that the great Otis Clay made guest appearances on Tad’s recordings. Saydak also worked extensively with Specter after decades on the 88s behind Lonnie Brooks, Mighty Joe Young and Johnny Winter. He’s a powerful baritone with a sound all of his own.

All three have extensive history as front men, and the rhythm section is just as strong. A longtime Saydak band mate behind Brooks, Terson began recording in the ‘70s. He continues operating the Fish Heads today in a career that’s included work with, Otis Rush, John Littlejohn, Eddie Shaw, Lurrie Bell and many more. And Binder, the junior member of the group, kept time behind Albert Collins and has worked with Coco Montoya, Eddie C. Campbell, Omar Coleman and others since arriving on the scene in the ‘80s.

Containing 13 originals and two covers, the album kicks off with “Blues For Hard Times.” Freund’s brief, tasty six-string solo atop a percussive rhythm opens the number before Robinson launches into lyrics that vow always to be watching his lady’s back and knowing she’s doing the same as they work together to face any difficulties that arise while living in the big city.

Known primarily for his guitar prowess, Freund’s an accomplished, relaxed vocalist in his own right as he demonstrates on the “Boogie In The Rain” with Tad and Ken complimenting the driving six-string patterns with solos of their own. Saydak’s booming pipes take over for “That Face,” a slow-paced two-step that describes an ill-matched romance.

The vocal rotation continues in order through the remaining 12 cuts with guitar, harp and keys all getting space to shine throughout. “Free To Love Again” features Robinson’s melismatic delivery atop a medium-paced stop-time shuffle while “Lonesome Flight” is pure old-school. It’s a slow blues that describes the phone call notifying Freund that his father has died. The sprightly “Chariot Gate” changes the mood dramatically with Saydak describing how he’s not ready to go, but looks back on his youth with several regrets.

Two covers — Mary-Ann Brandon’s “We Believe” and Elmore James’ “Stranger Blues” – follow before seven more originals compete the set. Ken’s clever “For A Reason” delivers understanding of the meaning of life, while Tad’s “Rich Man” is a sweet ballad singing about the true value of love. Steve’s tribute to Big Bill Broonzy, “Hey Big Bill,” features Robinson’s harp before Saydak’s in charge for “Love Police.” Penned by Terson, it describes a man who’s under suspicion every day of his life.

“Back To Chicago” describes a potential difficult return to the city, knowing there’s an angry woman waiting at home, while the slow tempo “Have You Ever Told Yourself A Lie” features Freund on slide for the first time in his recording career before the keyboard-driven ballad “Dream” brings the action to a close.

An instant classic for lovers of modern, but traditional blues delivered by artists who know the medium best. Available through all major retailers and highly recommended. My only criticism: The list of members on the CD cover doesn’t match up with the photo lineup below, takes nothing away form this one!

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