Roomful of Blues – In a Roomful of Blues | Album Review

Roomful of Blues – In a Roomful of Blues

Alligator Records

13 songs – 45 minutes

One of the longest-running bands in the modern era, Rhode Island-based powerhouse Roomful of Blues celebrates their 50th anniversary with the first CD they’re released in seven years and the first that’s chockful of clever, fresh material sure to keep you swinging at the hip and thinking, too.

A legendary unit that was founded by Duke Robillard and Al Copley at the equally venerable Knickerbocker Café in Westerly, R.I., the lineup’s always featured top talent, including guitarist Ronnie Earl and vocalists Curtis Salgado, Mark DuFresne and fellow Ocean State veteran Sugar Ray Norcia along the way.

Despite approximately 60 personnel changes through the years, the band still remains skintight and delivers a knockout punch every time they take the stage. They’re led by Chris Vachon on guitar and tenor and alto sax player Rich Lataille – a duo who’ve accumulated 80 years of service time with the organization.

Lataille signed aboard at the jump in 1970 when Roomful decided to expand from a four-piece Chicago-style blues band into the eight-piece horn ensemble it remains today, and he’s maintained oversight of the charts throughout, keeping the sound consistent despite the lineup shifts through the years. A relative “newcomer,” Vachon joined the lineup in 1990. Even though he doesn’t have as big a name as the giants who came before him, he’s a stellar picker in his own right.

The golden throated Phil Pemberton has been handling vocals for the past decade, and the current alignment includes Rusty Scott on keyboards, Carl Gerhard on trumpet and Alex Razdan on baritone and tenor saxes with drummer Chris Anzalone and upright bassist John Turner holding down the bottom. They’re augmented by Jeff Ceasrine on backing vocals and percussion with Bob Moulton adding rhythm guitar and backing vocals and Dick Reed adding accordion on one cut each.

Delivering material that’s somewhat more contemporary and slightly darker than what the band’s issued previously, In a Roomful of Blues was produced and mixed by Vachon and recorded at PM Studios in Wakefield, R.I., and The Power Station NE in Waterford, Conn. The eight of the ten originals in the 13-song set were written by Vachon – five in concert with Moulton, one with Pemberton and two on his own – with the others contributed by Scott and Razdan.

Roomful dips into the songbook of Don Robey for the obscure “What Can I Do?” to get things started. It swings from the start, propelled by a propulsive horn line, as Phil wonders what it’ll take to win his lady’s heart. The love theme continues in the searing, modern blues, “You Move Me,” as the pace slows to a medium shuffle. As usual, the lush arrangements provide ample space for everyone in the crowded lineup to deliver brief, razor-sharp solos.

“In a Roomful of Blues” is another azure love song in which a couple have survived a long succession of troubles, but remain at each other’s side as they seek a way to leave their past behind them. “Phone Zombies,” meanwhile started out as a joke among the bandmates before it evolved into a clever criticism of folks who spend their lives addicted to their handheld devices. The cautionary, guitar-driven “Watch Your Back” is a driving blues that speaks out against many things plaguing modern society, including drug lords, fake news, racism and a litany of much, much more.

The mood slows for the ballad “She Quit Me Again” before Roomful cooks with “She’s Too Much,” a Latin-flavored pleaser with a Cab Calloway-style horn arrangement. A taste of New Orleans follows in “Have You Heard” — a zydeco-flavored dance number penned by fellow Rhode Islander Gary Cummings – before the band exploded for the driving rocker, “We’d Have a Love Sublime.”

“Carcinoma Blues” — delivered in the third-person by Pemberton, but based on Moulton’s real-life battle with cancer — paints a bittersweet picture of someone going through chemotherapy. But the mood brightens dramatically with a throwback cover of “Too Much Boogie,” which was written by Doc Pomus, the man who facilitated the band’s self-titled debut recording in 1977. The bluesy “Let the Sleeping Dog Lie” advises avoiding trouble before the jazzy “I Can’t Wait” brings the action to a close.

Available through most major retailers, and strongly recommended.

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