Ruf Records 1215
14 songs – 68 minutes
Here’s a question for you: What do you get when you take a group of superstar musicians out of their comfort zone in the bayou, sequester them in a rented house along the Tennessee River in North Alabama and move them to the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals to produce an album?
It doesn’t take much of a stretch to guess that they’re going to produce a CD that will knock your socks off, and that’s just what Royal Southern Brotherhood did with Don’t Look Back: The Muscle Shoals Sessions, a collection of 14 tunes that absolutely explodes with emotion.
According to Native American legend, the Yuchie tribe called the Tennesse the “Singing River” because the sound of its waters lapping at the shore sounded like a woman singing. Band leader Cyrill Neville and his cohorts used that inspiration to come up with some of the material you’ll find here. The rest was gathered from the band’s experiences on tour.
Grammy winner Tom Hambridge produced this disc for the band, which won a 2014 Blues Music Award for best DVD for Songs From The Road. This one features Neville on vocals and percussion, joined by his regular rhythm section of bassist Charlie Wooton and drummer Yonrico Scott. The guitar lineup, however, is brand new. Mike Zito and Devon Allman are both gone. But string-benders Bart Walker, the operatically trained vocalist who doubles on mandolin and banjo, and Jimmie Vaughan’s son Tyrone add their own brand of fire to the mix. Rounding out the sound are Cyrill’s brother Ivan (keyboards) and a horn section comprised of Jimmy Hall and Max Abrams (saxophone) and Paul Armstrong (trumpet).
The music cooks from the start. A searing guitar line atop a powerful rhythm kicks off the blues-rocker “I Wanna Be Free,” which details a lifetime of struggle with no sign of hope. The desperation expressed in that song is relieved in “Reach My Goal,” a fast shuffle that offers up the wisdom to take life as it comes and never give up until you reach what you want. The title cut, “Don’t Look Back,” is a slow blues that starts with a Spanish feel but turns into a country-flavored funk, fueled by Walker’s vocals and banjo. It carries the previous messages forward, cautioning not to obsess on the past; look forward to a brand new day.
The band delivers a little funk with “Hit Me Once,” a tale of meeting a beauty on the sidewalk in the Treme section of New Orleans, offering her a cigarette and winding up with a night of pleasure that seemed like a dream. The theme continues with “The Big Greasy,” which sings praises to the Crescent City partying on a Saturday night.
The thoroughly modern, guitar-driven “Hard Blues” follows, recounting the feelings of a man whose woman runs off with his best friend, before the mood brightens dramatically for “Better Half,” a love song that expresses gratitude for the support and understanding that’s turned the singer into a better man in every way. In the days of request radio, this tune would be in heavy rotation, breaking the feelings down to basics.
“Penzi” is an Afro-Cuban style tune that states that every boy and girl deserves to be protected because each of them is a love child, while “It’s Time For Love” is a rhythmic, bluesy request to take a relationship to the next level. “Bayou Baby” speaks of a woman who can cook jambalaya and gumbo simultaneously, shake her booty and also cast a spell on you if you step out of line, while “Poor Boy” delivers a message that you don’t have to have money to be good in the sack.
A wah-wah guitar line introduces “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like You No More,” which implores the subject of the tune to keep throwing her love on the singer, while “Come Hell Or High Water” is an autobiographical blues that promises to return home after too many days on the road. The CD concludes with “Anchor Me,” another tender, romantic ballad.
FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios has produced classic recordings by Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin and a host of others. Don’t Look Back deserves to be considered among them. Available everywhere, and solid from beginning to end.