by Vic Doucette
Roomful of Blues
Fans of the swingingest band in the land have double the reason to celebrate these days. Hyena Records has rereleased Roomful of Blues’ debut disc from 1977, just as Alligator Records has put out a brand-new recording of the group. Comparing the two albums shows just how far the band has progressed, while remaining true to its original vision.
Co-produced by Joel Dorn and Doc Pomus, The 1st Album found Roomful covering tunes by Chick Willis, Noble “Thin Man” Watts and T-Bone Walker, among others. Since they’d already been together 10 years, there’s nothing tentative about this jumping session. It starts strongly with “Red, Hot & Blue,” then really gets to rockin’ with “That’s My Life,” where the punctuation from the Roomful horn section demonstrates why they were (and are) some of the most in-demand studio cats around. Guitarist-singer Duke Robillard contributes the lone original on the record, the ballad “Duke’s Blues.” The highlight, though, has to be the sympathetic tenor work of Scott Hamilton on another ballad, “Still in Love with You.” Robillard’s vocal on Big Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush” is the only thing I can fault; he sometimes apes Turner’s style here, rather than using his natural voice. In all, The 1st Album is a very entertaining record, clearly the work of guys who loved the jump blues they were playing.
That’s Right! shows that the 2003 edition of Roomful (saxophonist Rich Lataille is the only member on both albums) still swings like crazy. But the band has moved beyond the confines of jump blues to encompass tastes of the West Coast (Jimmy McCracklin’s “I Just Got to Know”), Texas (“Stranger Blues,” best known from Elmore James), New Orleans (“Shame, Shame, Shame,” made famous by Smiley Lewis), and Kansas City (“Lipstick, Powder & Paint,” again from the Big Joe Turner songbook). New singer-harpist Mark DuFresne has a big, brawling voice that suits this material down to the ground; you’ve got to have a powerful set of pipes to fit in here. He’s soulful when he finds the pain in tunes such as “Ocean of Tears,” yet is able to mine the humor in “I Know Your Wig is Gone.”
This is the 17th Roomful of Blues album; about 50 people have been in the band at one time or another. But the spirit of the music matters far more than the names of the folks on the albums. Roomful’s made great records for years and they’re one of the most dependable live acts on the planet. Miss them at your own risk.
Vic Doucette is the copy editor at Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.