Sugar Ray and the Bluetones featuring Little Charlie – Too Far From The Bar | Album Review

Sugar Ray and the Bluetones featuring Little Charlie – Too Far From The Bar

Severn Records

15 songs – 64 minutes

After meeting while on tour for a Mark Hummel project that honored Little Walter, Sugar Ray Norcia and guitarist Little Charlie Baty started discussions about making a record together. It took some years to make it happen, Sadly, Baty tragically passed away earlier this year before the disc was ready for release. He gets things rolling with a quick guitar statement on “Don’t Give No More Than You Can Take,” written by Lowman Pauling of the “5” Royales. Then the veteran rhythm section of Michael ‘Mudcat’ Ward on bass and Neil Gouvin on drums jumps in, laying down a tight groove with Anthony Geraci on piano filling out the arrangement. Once Norcia’s smooth voice takes over, the party is in full swing. Baty delivers a perfectly phrased guitar break that leads into Norcia’s dynamic harp blowing.

The harp is at the forefront of another classic cover, “Bluebird Blues” from Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson). Norcia coaxes plenty of beautifully crafted licks out of his harmonica, perfectly framing his forlorn vocal. The mood shifts into high gear on the original title cut, an up-tempo romp with Baty turning things inside out with one of his patented, twisting guitar soliloquies. “Numb And Dumb” is a Norcia original that finds the leader down in the dumps over a no-good woman, with his harmonica, Baty’s guitar, and booze as his only sources of comfort. Another of his originals, “Walk Me Home,” is a steady-rolling shuffle that opens with a long harp solo, then features Geraci’s intricate piano fills wrapped around another one of Baty’s biting forays.

Ward contributed two songs to the program. The first, “What I Put You Through,” has a late-night jazz feel, and is one of four tracks that feature producer Duke Robillard on guitar. He spins a series of compelling rounds with a relaxed delivery that fits the track’s mood. Ward also penned the humorous “The Night I Got Pulled Over,” as Norcia recounts the tale of a very late-night, post-gig encounter with a very serious member of law enforcement. Geraci reminds listeners why he has received numerous award nominations while Baty and Robillard engage in some subtle interplay on the talking slow blues. “From The Horses Mouth,” penned by Geraci, is another earthy shuffle with Norcia’s voice full of the excitement over his new love interest.

A cover of “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer” displays the depth of Norcia’s understanding of Little Walter’s harmonica legacy, with another spot-on vocal turn. Geraci steps into the spotlight again on “What Will Be Become Of Me,” a tune written by the piano legend Otis Spann. He treats listeners to a masterful rendition of Spann’s style. Things slip into overdrive with Baty getting solo honors on a frantic run-through of Jerry McCain’s “My Next Door Neighbor.” Robillard delivers another nuanced solo while Norcia shines with a knowingly weathered vocal on the classic “I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues,” another standout track.

The proceedings veer into a tear-in-my-beer ballad, with Norcia nailing the vocal on “Too Little Too Late.” He gets some extended time to try to blow his harp on the original instrumental “Reel Burner.” A second version is included at the end of the disc, with a slightly shorter running time and an equally inspired harp attack.

While some might be expecting plenty of instrumental fireworks from this impressive line-up, these veterans stay focused on the songs, giving each of them room to breathe. With four top-rank soloists, the spotlight gets passed around, with Norcia, Geraci, Baty and Robillard making concise statements with plenty of staying power. There is plenty to savor on this album, with more elements coming to the fore with each listen. It’s the blues from start to finish, certainly one of the finest records that this year will have to offer!

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