Smoke Wagon Blues Band – The Ballad Of Albert Johnson
Self-Release – 2020
13 tracks; 53 minutes
This Canadian band formed in 1996 and this is their seventh album release. The band is a seven-piece with frontman Corey Lueck on vocals and harp, Mike Stubbs on guitar, slide and lap-steel, Steve Sherman on guitar and percussion, Brandon Bruce on keys, Gordon Aeichele on sax, flute and washboard, Jason Colavecchia on bass and Tibor Lukacs on drums; everybody apart from Gordon provides backing vocals. The material is all-original apart from one Fats Domino cover, Corey being the main writer, involved in all twelve originals, with Mike, Brandon, Jason and Tibor all contributing. Steve engineered and produced the album, apart from the final track which is a live recording.
Corey’s vocals are so gruff on the title track that it is not always easy to catch the lyrics over the pounding boogie beat but the story appears to be a tragic one. The band moves into soul territory with a funky tune which relates life on the road fueled by “Memphis Soul” and that soulful vibe carries over into the ballad “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Fool”, a classic tale of love gone wrong with brooding sax and solid piano. Both those instruments also feature strongly on a robust take on “The Fat Man” which evokes both Fats and New Orleans, the Crescent City also the focus of “Lay Say Lay” (an adaptation of the Cajun saying ‘laissez les bon temps rouler’). Another change of direction occurs with “Mescaline” which features Gordon on flute, giving the song a light, jazzy sound though the lyrics are again quite difficult to grasp but appear to be about getting high in Montreal. “Sacrifice” is a strong song with Brandon’s swirling keys leading into fine guitar and sax solos; the rhythm section pushes this one along in Doobie Brothers style, the bass getting a short feature too.
The next two tracks both have blues in the title: “Poor Man Blues” shuffles along nicely with slide, sax and Corey getting his harp out to good effect; “Matapedia River Blues” is the longest track here, coming in at just under six minutes, a slow blues which takes its time to describe the area in Quebec through which the river runs. The more relaxed pace suits Corey’s voice and the whole band stretches out impressively on a very enjoyable cut. “A Song For Cheryl” is another well done slower tune which also name-checks the Matapedia as Corey rues the loss of the title character: “when I need to tell somebody, who will I call?”
The next track adds some jump blues to the band’s portfolio, Corey bemoaning his luck in all manner of activities but concluding that you “Can’t Take The Blues” away from him – a very catchy number. The familiar title “On The Road Again” is not the old Canned Heat song but another original, this time in country style, one of the band doing a decent impression of Johnny Cash in duet with Corey. Last we get a live recording, the title “Steaming Comrades Harp Boogie” giving away that this is a harp-led boogie tune which probably went down very well at The Ontario Power Boat Championships!
The Smoke Wagon Blues Band shows us a wide range of styles here and listeners will be able to pick out their preferences. It is also fair to say that the album is well packaged with a vintage oil wagon on the cover and the band members photographed in front of an old steam locomotive on the inside.