Sugar Blue – Voyage | Album Review

sugarbluecdSugar Blue – Voyage

MC Records MC 0079

12 songs – 49 minutes

International harmonica virtuoso Sugar Blue takes listeners on a deeply personal, spiritual journey on his latest CD. Recorded in Chicago and mixed and mastered in Switzerland, Voyage delivers layer after layer of emotion as it provides a glimpse of the artist today, having overcome the inner demons that plagued him through much of his career despite his success on stage.

A two-time Grammy winner whose precise musical runs on the reeds come at you with hurricane force, but the precision of a tornado, Blue straddles several genres, having recorded acoustic blues with Louisiana Red, avant garde jazz with Archie Shepp and rock with the Rolling Stones, in addition to a long stint as featured harp player in the last incarnation of Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues Allstars. As frontman on his own records, he’s never shied away from revealing his emotions, with lyrics that described dealing with the inner conflicts that troubled him, including a long addition to cocaine.

Now, on Voyage, he finally gets the chance to share his victory over the drug and related darkness and deliver images of the positive new life he now enjoys. Dedicated to the memory of the late James Knowles, a sensational drummer who traveled the world with Blue for years, this disc features several familiar faces and a few new ones as it delivers 11 originals and one cover.

Longtime bandmate Rico McFarland, who’s worked with a who’s who of Chicago blues superstars, handles guitar duties with assists from Harry Hmura, Sergio Montaleni and Max De Bernardi. Keeping the rhythm are bassists Joewaun “Jay Red Bass” Scott, Bill Dinkens, Johnny B. Gayden and Sugar’s fulltime wife and band leader Ilaria Lantieri, as well as percussionists Brady Williams, Michael Weatherspoon and T.J. Tucker. Damiano Della Torre handles keys with guest appearances by saxophone legend Eddie Shaw, Broadway star vocalist-actress Maya Azucena and Sonix The Mad Scientist, the reknowned multi-instrumentalist and producer. Augmenting the sound are a chorus that includes Curtis Lindsey, Brandon Love, Tina Love and Michelle Lindsey.

The disc kicks off with the sweet “On My Way (Sarah’s Song).” It’s a ballad directed to Blue’s grown daughter that both admits past errors and proclaims clearly how he’s “in a hurry to find my way/Seems like nothin’ can wait today…/I like the person I found inside/There was no reason for me to hide.” His solo mid-tune is just as tender and sugary as his words. An impossibly difficult harp run kicks off “One,” which delivers the familiar refrain that “one man’s pleasure is another man’s pain” as it describes internal struggles, before “Sugar Blue Boogie,” a super-fast shuffle with great stop-time breaks that only a top-notch band can deliver. It’s the only instrumental in the set.

Next up, “New York City” is a lyrical, acoustic autobiography that features De Bernardi on guitar. Blue details being a country boy despite being born in Harlem with glimpses of playing at the Bitter End folk club in Greenwich Village as well as meetings with Victoria Spivey, with whom he recorded, Muddy Waters and Memphis Slim, among others, who invited him to Paris, where he hooked up with the Stones. “12 Steps” is another tender song of gratitude, this time for rebirth, before the equally touching “Love Is Everywhere,” which carries the message forward as Sugar describes waking up to see his wife smiling at his side. It includes a vow “to be my baby’s dad,” a theme reinforced by giggles from Sugar and Ilaria’s two-year-old son, James.

“Mercedes Blues” is bittersweet love song that describes being driven into the ground after buying the car for a cheating lover while “Sunshine,” a jazzy ballad, questions whether the singer’s worthy of the woman he’ll love for the rest of his life. “Cyber Blues,” about being an analog man in a digital world, precedes a new take on the Ray Charles classic, “Mary Ann,” Ray Charles before Azucena and Sonix lend a hand for “Life On The Run,” a plea for sanity in a world where innocent people are being shot dead in the street, before “Time” delivers a message that life is fleeting and we all have to act now to determine our fate.

As someone who’s known Sugar Blue for more years that either one of us probably don’t care to admit, Voyageleaves me smiling broadly, both for the quality of the disc and all of the positives expressed within. Available through all of the major retailers, it will have you smiling, too.

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