Van Wilks – 21st Century Blues | Album Review

vanwilkscdVan Wilks – 21st Century Blues

Texas ’51 Records

12 tracks / 52:02 minutes

Van Wilks is no stranger to guitar rock blues – Texas style.  He has been playing blues guitar professionally since the 1970’s and serving it up hot!  In 1979 he was signed by Mercury Records, releasing his first album, Bombay Tears in 1980.  Since that time, he has released eight more albums including 21st Century Blues.  He has toured internationally with such acts as ZZ Top, Heart, Van Hanlen and Aerosmith to name a few.  He has also been featured on recordings with the likes of Willie Nelson, Eric Johnson and ZZ Top.  He has won multiple Austin Music Awards, won awards as Best Guitarist and Best Blues-Rock Band four years in-a-row and has been voted into the Austin Chronicle Texas Music Hall of Fame.  21st Century Blues is his first studio recording in ten years and was produced by Van Wilks.  It was recorded and mixed by Chet Himes at Relentless Ranch Studios and Chicken Run Studios in Texas.  All the songs on the CD were written by Wilks and feature several musicians including Christopher Cross supplying vocals on “She Makes Me Crazy” (co-written with Cross) and a variety of other talented musicians (different on most tracks) all of whom keep the tracks fresh and unique while creating an experience for the listener where one play is not nearly enough.

According to Wilks, “the new record is my take on contemporary blues”.  He also notes that “…this is MY Blues and even though the songs jump from one feel to another, the common thread that holds it all together is my guitar”.  From the second you push play and “Strange Girl” begins with a guitar intro that has you reaching to increase the volume, you know this CD is something special.  Wilks is a master at drawing you into his songs with Texas-sized guitar intros.  “She makes Me Crazy” and “Who’s Foolin Who” has your foot tapping and head bobbing within the first few seconds.  The blusier “Golddigger” makes you slink back, shut your eyes and hear the beautiful tones of more traditional blues with a rock twist.  This song is blues/rock at its best.

Wilks doesn’t stop here, nearly every song has a masterful guitar solos and riffs with bends, slides and double stops executed as well as any top name blues guitarist.  Wilks years of experience and passion for blues/rock is evident, especially in “Drive by Lover” which was co-written with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, a long-time friend of Wilks.  This song highlights everything right about using a guitar in a blues/rock song.  The guitar phrasing is complimentary to the melody, notes explode like fireworks just at the right time in the song and the guitar accompanies  Wilks’ vocals like fine wine and conversation.  In every song, Wilks’ gifted vocals are perfectly accented by his guitar, especially notable in “21st Century Blues”.

The other musicians on the tracks are excellent as well.  The drums and bass provide a strong backbone for every song while the keyboard, especially in “Just Walk Away” creates a mood for the song that supports the vocals beautifully in this slower song.  The skilled drumming in “Livin on Borrowed Time” is quite evident in this rocking song, especially when used as an accent as well as holding down the beat.

The real creativity and hallmark of Van Wilks’ skills in songwriting and guitar, as well as his homage to traditional blues lies in the track “There’s a Sin in there Somewhere “.  The song begins with a scratchy, old Leadbelly recording and Wilks on a 1929 National Dobro playing old-time blues.  Just when you begin to imagine yourself in the Deep South at a little blues joint, a searing guitar rises from the speakers and pulls you right into the 21st Century Blues.  The song fades out with the old recording and takes you back where you started the journey.  The song epitomizes the evolution of blues/rock as well as highlighting the level of skill in all aspects of this CD.  “Midnight Crossing”, the last track on the CD, is the perfect way to end the wonderful blues/rock trip this CD takes you on.  It is swampy blues guitar at its best.  Wilks brings you back to a hot Texas summer night with his use of slides and effects.  The song itself is more of a poem sung in Spanish by “the voice of a Mexican Angel” with some very creative sounds and guitar playing.  It is the work of someone confident enough in his skill to take the blues into another place and time.

This CD is one for every collection.  While it is blues/rock, it is also a history lesson of the blues, especially Texas blues.  It honors the musicians who paved the way for the music we call Texas blues/rock today while taking that music a step forward.  It is aptly summarized by a line in the song, “Just Walk Away”:  “Now you’re southbound on the blue train”.  Indeed you are, and guaranteed to buy another ticket and turn the CD up louder each time you play it.

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