Stratcat Willie & The Strays – On The Prowl
Self-Release – 2020
13 tracks; 60 minutes
Willie Hayes has had a long career in the blues, starting out in the 60’s under the influence of Michael Bloomfield, T-Bone Walker, Johnny Winter and BB King amongst others. He was encouraged to form a classic rock covers band but resisted that siren call to play the blues and formed Blues Plate Special in 1995 to play original music plus some selected covers and the band worked the southern end of New York state to good effect, issuing four albums along the way. On his first release under his alias Stratcat Willie he has joined forces with keyboards man Neal Massa and two different rhythm sections (bassist John Wisor/drummer Dave Fiorini on six tracks; bassist Vinnie Burvee/drummer Dave Salce on seven); Jeremy Hummel adds percussion to one track. The result is a varied set of all original music which includes songs written as far back as 2002 but all recorded in 2020 and finalized as lock-down was beginning.
The first five tracks here all explore the eternal question of what constitutes the blues while also covering five different blues styles. “Come On In” starts with a hint of Elmore James and moves into a BB King style shuffle. The autobiographical song states that whenever Willie “heard the blues a-knokin’ I always said ‘come on in’” and Willie recognizes that he “Sure ‘Nuff Got The Blues” on a funky Louisiana style tune with lots of fine piano work. The driving beat of “I Know” is well supported by Neal’s swirling organ and Willie’s slide work which he recognizes is a nod towards Sonny Landreth’s style. “Since You Left Me” has a latin/rhumba rhythm as Willie slyly suggests that his confusion is the result of being abandoned by his lover and the ballad “1.38 In The Morning” plays around with the traditional lament of sleepless nights worrying about a deteriorating relationship.
So far, so good. Solid playing, some well crafted lyrics but nothing we have not heard before. However, the pace of the album seems to alter with the instrumental “Scramblin’” which has the sort of organ playing that recalls Booker T combined with Stevie Ray on guitar. Willie plays some lovely stuff on the soulful ballad “It’s Just That Way” before Willie and Neal both shine on the jazzy shuffle “I’ve Got It Bad” which has some amusing lyrical touches. A highlight track is “Life Is Good” which sounds like a lost Allman Brothers track with its uplifting lyrics and a tune that builds on two of Dickey Betts’ finest moments – “Blue Sky” and “Back Where It All Begins”. Guitar, piano and percussion all impress across close to seven minutes of musical excellence.
After that tour de force the band strips things back with double bass featured on the late night “Take It Easy Baby” before a track that Willie says reflects his experience of the ‘annual trek to the IBC’s’, “Eat, Drink, Boogie, Repeat”. The title is certainly one to which many blues fans can relate and the fast-paced tune gets the toes tapping and the head nodding! The album closes strongly as Willie imagines a road trip to New Orleans on “Big Easy Bound” and summarizes his philosophy about how blues can heal us all on the rousing “Good News Of The Blues”, both tracks featuring plenty of good playing, particularly the spiraling guitar solo that takes us out of the final cut.
There is a lot to enjoy here as Willie and his cohorts take us on a wide-ranging tour of the blues.