William Shatner – The Blues
Cleopatra Records CLO 1943
14 songs – 50 minutes
Former Star Trek captain William Shatner has been no stranger to music and the recording studio since blasting off into space aboard the Starship Enterprise in the mid-‘60s with the release of The Transformed Man LP on the Decca label, a concept album that juxtaposed spoken-word passages of classic poetry and pop tunes dealing with the existential struggle of identity – all delivered with the intense vocal gymnastics that made him a superstar on the small screen.
That disc was panned pretty much internationally, but remains viewed as a work of comic brilliance and as a priceless treasure among Trekkies. No matter whether it was a fluke of luck or an act of genius, the work created a niche market that Shatner’s been mining intermittently ever since. Mixed in among releases for his sci fi audience have been novelty albums that continued the theme forward, mixing multiple forms of music into his apparent sly, tongue-in-cheek performance.
This CD is the fifth release in Capt. Kirk’s relationship with Los Angeles-based Cleopatra Records, beginning with Seeking Major Tom in 2011 and, most recently, the holiday-themed album, Shatner Claus: The Christmas Album, two years ago. But this one takes listeners somewhere they’ve never gone before: He enlisted several of his favorite musicians to deliver his first blues effort. And it’s surprising it’s taken this long because the native Canadian has been a blues lover for decades.
Among the world-class talents laying down the backing tracks here are guitarists Kirk Fletcher, Brad Paisley, Sonny Landreth, Ritchie Blackmore, Ronnie Earl, Pat Travers and Harvey Mandel along with Canned Heat, all of whom sit in on one cut each. Also featured are Steve Cropper, James Burton, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Arthur Adams, Tyler Baxter and Albert Lee. They’re flushed out with an uncredited roster of session musicians.
With the exception of the final two cuts – a cover culled from the Canadian country-folk string band, The Dead South, and a final musing penned by Shatner himself, all of the songs here are classical blues chestnuts, that – propelled by his oddly cadenced vocal delivery – have seen far better days, beginning with a fiery, stinging intro from Paisley for Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago.”
The action slows to a tedious crawl for Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” despite masterful fretwork from Fletcher before Landreth fills Eric Clapton’s shoes admirably for a thoroughly forgettable take on Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” Blackmore’s rendition of B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” is understated and true blue before Earl steps to the plate for down-and-deep version of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” as, for a second or two, Shatner issues something that almost sounds like singing.
The musical portion of this show diverts to Memphis briefly for a painful version of the Booker T/William Bell classic, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” propelled by sweet licks from former child protégé Bryant before Shatner does his best to destroy the enchantment laid down by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” despite Travers doing his best to keep things on the rails.
If Robert Johnson wasn’t spinning his grave after the open, he probably will be with the vocally emotionless version of “Crossroads” that’s up next aided by Burton, and Howlin’ Wolf will be spinning, too, with Shatner’s ineffectual reading of “Smokestack Lightnin’” despite six-string magic from Baxter. And Adams’ spectacular licks can’t save Don Robey’s “As the Years Go Passing By,” either.
It takes big cajoles for Bill to do what he attempts next — covering Canned Heat’s version of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together” backed by the band that made it famous, which almost works – before enlisting Cropper for turning the Bobby Troupe classic, “Route 66,” into a car wreck and Lee for “In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company,” The Dead South tune that begins mercifully with an extended instrumental intro. The disc ends with “Secrets or Sins,” a word poem backed by Daniel Miller on guitar.
The music quality on The Blues is exceptional throughout – as you’d expect after a quick glance at the roster, and Shatner fans probably will love this one to the moon and back. If you’re a true blues lover, however, you’ll probably feel more like I do: Sorry, Bill, but the thrill is gone, I can quit you, baby. I feel like I’ve been born under a bad sign, made worse because listening to this felt like the years were passing me by. I’m already in hell.
Beam me up, Scotty! I’m done!