Tad Robinson – Real Street | Album Review

Tad Robinson – Real Street

Severn Records 0076

10 songs – 45 minutes


Indianapolis-based Tad Robinson simply simmers and smokes on this CD, continuing a legacy that’s earned him nine nominations as Blues Music Association soul-blues singer in the year. And he did it in style with backing from the legendary Hi Rhythm Section — organist Charles Hodges, his brother Leroy on bass and Howard Grimes on percussion – hands down, the most important sessions players ever to set foot in a Memphis studio.

A native of New York City who grew up listening to both Stax and Motown, Robinson has been a fixture in both Chicago and Indianapolis, Ind., since the early ‘80s. A former music student at Indiana University, he fronted the Hesitation Blues Band, but fell in love with the Windy City as a student and quickly relocated there in pursuit of his dreams.

Following in the footsteps of former Hi artists O.V. Wright, Syl Johnson and Otis Clay, his honeyed vocals and often overlooked skill at playing harmonica came to the fore as a member of The Fabulous Fish Heads, a long-running unit formed by young sidemen who also played with Sunnyland Slim, Big Walter Horton, Lonnie Brooks, Otis Rush and others.

His debut as a headliner came in 1994, when Delmark Records released his One to Infinity CD after serving as front man for guitarist Dave Specter’s Bluebirds. That featured guest spots from Specter, Rod Piazza guitarist Alex Schultz and the late Robert Ward, a founding member of The Ohio Untouchables/Ohio Players.

This disc is Tad’s fourth on the Severn imprint since joining the label in the mid-2000s. His most recent previous foray into the studio came in 2018, when he reunited with former Fish Heads Steve Freund, Ken Saydak, Harlan Terson and Marty Binder as Rockwell Avenue Blues Band for the well-reviewed straight-ahead blues Back to Chicago album.

Robinson handles vocals and delivers occasional harp on Real Street, an unhurried set of six originals and four covers that was captured at Electraphonic Recording in Memphis and Severn Sound Studios in Annapolis, Md. In addition to the Hi Rhythm Section, he’s joined here by Joe Restivo on guitar, Kevin Anker on Wurlitzer electric piano, Marc Franklin on trumpet and Kirk Smothers on saxophone with Devin B. Thompson adding additional vocals.

The grooves hit you hard and heavy from the opening notes of the original, “Changes,” which insists that only love can bring about change in a world of constant opposition, and run deep throughout. Robinson’s pipes are oh so slightly road worn – not surprising since he’s been at it for four decades. But his sweet tenor consistently cuts like a knife atop flawless backing.

Tad gets introspective for “Full Grown Woman,” in which wonders how he could have possibly acted in a way that made his lady “put him on the shelf” – while realizing she’s “a full-grown woman.” The ballad “Search Your Heart” follows and prays for a reconciliation, breathing new life into a forgotten classic first laid down by George Jackson in 1968.

The mood brightens slightly for the self-penned “Love in the Neighborhood,” a slow-paced remembrance of driving past a former home and remembering what used to be, but the regret runs deep, fueled by plaintive harp runs, as Robinson recounts the affair with a neighbor that cost him everything. “Wishing Well Blues” is up next with Tad coming to terms with the fact that his lady truly is gone – along with a portion of his heart and soul, too – as he invokes hope she’ll find happiness down the road.

A trio of interesting, upbeat covers follow, beginning with a stellar reworking of Roy Orbison’s 1988 “You Got It,” a tender love song that’s in stark contrast of what’s come before, followed by a take on Charles Watts’ “You Are My Dream” and David Gates’ “Make It With You,” a chart-topper for the group Bread when it debuted in 1970.

The original title tune, “Real Street,” picks up speed into a medium-fast shuffle as Tad insists he’s got to “keep my feet movin’ on down Beale Street” before the tasty “Long Way Home” brings the album to a close, continuing the message of loneliness as it describes plans for driving the back roads and taking time returning because there’s no one at home to greet him.

There’s good reason that this CD and Tad Robinson have been nominated for soul-blues album and of the year in the 2020 Blues Music Awards. It’s sensational. Pick it up. You won’t be disappointed.

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