Roland Johnson – Set Your Mind Free
Blue Lotus Recordings – 2019
10 tracks; 39 minutes
Roland Johnson is a veteran soul singer from St Louis, Missouri who came to Blues Blast readers’ attention when his previous disc Imagine This was nominated in the Soul-Blues category of the Blues Blast Awards in 2017. The follow-up uses much the same format and personnel with Blue Lotus head Paul Niehaus IV on guitar, bass, keys and tenor sax and fellow co-producer Kevin O’Connor playing drums, guitar, keys and baritone sax.
Despite the pair’s obvious talent across such a wide range of instruments the album does not sound like two guys multiply overdubbed, probably because of the very long list of musicians who contributed to the recordings: Adam Hucke on trumpet and flugelhorn, David Gomez on tenor sax, Mikail Andria on trombone, Mike Graham on upright bass, Andy Hainz on cello, Mark Hochberg, Dragomir Page, Abbie Steiling and Lindsay Wilken on violin and/or viola. Mattie Schell, Jackie Teuber and Ally Vogler add backing vocals and Emily Wallace and Gene Jackson share the vocals with Roland on three cuts. The writing credits are shared between Roland, Paul, Kevin and Gene with John Marshall and Tyler Jackson Stokes contributing to one track each, Tyler also playing guitar on his, and there is one rather unexpected cover.
The album is set as if it is an LP, with tracks 1-5 labelled ‘Side A’ and 6-10 ‘Side B’. The title track sets things off with a bang, a classic upbeat soul stomper with everything you would expect from that description: Roland’s powerful vocals make you think of Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding and the great horn chart propels the song. A duet with Emily Wallace, “Still Here” has elements of reggae and doo-wop as the duo celebrate that they are still together and “Now You’re Gone” is a rather syrupy ballad with the strings to the fore. “Steppin’” has the sort of infectious groove that makes it hard to sit still and you can easily imagine Roland getting the entire audience at a gig to follow his instructions! A second duet shows that Emily can handle an upbeat tune as easily as a ballad and the piano-led Rn’B stomper “You Know You’re Mine” works really well, lyrically following the earlier duet in celebrating the couple’s attachment, David Gomez upping the excitement with his tenor solo.
“Let’s Live Together” shares a title with one from the repertoire of Al Green but it’s another original, Roland showing he can hit some high notes like the Reverend, the backing vocalists adding to the performance on another highlight track. Roland asks his girl to “Hold On”, a ballad which uses a tune and rhythm similar to “I Put A Spell On You” before the sole cover. “You’re My Best Friend” was a hit for Queen and, rather unusually, was written by their bass player John Deacon with no involvement from Freddie Mercury or Brian May. It is a surprise to find a Queen song on a soul album, but it works fine. Roland sings the song well and the combination of subtle strings and horns enables the song to remain instantly recognizable. Who knew that Queen had written and performed a soul song? Fellow Blue Lotus artist Gene Jackson duets with Roland on “Push And Move”, another one of those ‘dance move’ songs like “Steppin’” on Side A – good stuff. To close the album Roland moves into more of a blues vein with “Mean Mistreatin’” which is stripped-back without horns or strings. Whilst that is good news for the variety of the album, at over seven minutes, the song is simply too long to sustain interest. Perhaps the production team were conscious that the album was a little on the short side so elongated the track. This reviewer would have preferred a couple more of the excellent soul tunes like the title track or the dance tunes!
Overall an enjoyable disc with just a couple of false steps but still well worth a listen if you enjoy soul music.