8 tracks/28:30 minutes
There is no question that musicians should be judged by ability and not by age, and that is certainly the case with 16-year-old blues guitarist Spencer MacKenzie. He’s already won the Niagara Music Awards Rising Star award, and he was selected to perform at the 2016 Youth Showcase at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. He also received a scholarship from the Blues Foundation so he could attend the Fernando Jones Blues Camp in Chicago this past summer.
Young blues and rock guitarists often try to play too many notes, opting for flash and wasting too many notes along the way. More mature guitarists learn that it’s style not flash that wins the day. MacKenzie has learned this lesson already, though, and he’s not after flash but finding the right phrasing and licks for each song. In this way, his guitar playing is crisp and clean even as it delivers some down-to-the bone licks. MacKenzie’s vocals lack the power of his guitar playing, for he hasn’t yet developed the growl of a good blues vocalist; but if he keeps this up, as he promises to do on his first song on the album, the voice will grow into the licks.
MacKenzie declares on the album’s opening track that he’s been “Infected with the Blues”: “I got the blues/Runnin’ through my veins/People say I’m too young/Oh, that’s a shame/I fell into Muddy Waters/I came out jelly fever/I’m gonna play this guitar/I’m gonna make you a believer.” The power of this opening lies precisely in MacKenzie’s clean and right-on-the-money licks. He’s got the blues power in his soul, and it comes blazing out of his fingers. This original composition—one of three on the album—lets us know that MacKenzie has arrived ready to spread his infection all around so that we’ll soon catch it.
On “Goodbye Lucille”, MacKenzie’s tribute to B.B. King, the young guitarist manages to capture much of King’s own spirit in his string-bending, slow-burn opening lead riffs. He’s clearly listened deeply to King, for he delivers a tune that embodies King’s soulfulness and his pointed guitar runs. Again, MacKenzie’s vocals lack the depth to match his heart-rendered guitar playing; the power will come, for you can hear it in his hear on this song.
The other five tracks on the album are covers and include a humorous and deftly delivered version of Memphis Minnie’s “Kissing in the Dark” and a cover of Ahmet Ertegun’s “Mess Around” that chugs along with a barrelhouse piano driving the jump blues of the original. MacKenzie probably shouldn’t have chosen to include Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” since it’s been covered much better by so many other artists. MacKenzie’s version moves along too lightly and not forcefully enough to capture the power of the song. It’s one of those songs that should be sung by an artist who’s faced down some of the political and social issues the song raises.
In spite of the weakness of the album’s final cut, this is a very strong debut by a young guitarist who clearly has the blues in his soul and they’re not going away.