Duke Robillard Finds Cause To Have a ‘Blues Bash’ in the Midst of the Pandemic

Duke Robillard & Friends | Blues Bash | ( Stony Plain)
Four out of Five Stars

In a world fraught with turmoil and lack of predictability, there’s at least one thing that can be counted on, and that’s the driving and dynamic sound of blues veteran Duke Robillard. With a career that stretches back well over half a century, Robillard has earned a reputation as something of a legend, having begun to excel early on with his renowned, ground-breaking band Roomful of Blues and continuing on steadily from there. And yet, his despite his obvious affinity for the blues, he’s also adept at jazz, jump, boogie-woogie and covering songs that have become seasoned standards.

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“I’ve done many different style records, but from where I stand, they have all been blues or steeped in the blues,” Robillard maintains. “There are always blues form tunes, but even the jazz tunes have a blues feel about them. Blues is a key element in all my music. Blues Bash! is one of several of my records, stylistically traditional to a specific period. History is very important to me, but the main thing is to move people. And if the players are having fun, I believe it translates though the speakers.”

Nowhere is that more evident than on his new aptly-named new album, a set of songs that reunites him with the brass section from the original Roomfull of Blues band as well as a variety of special guest that include vocalists Michelle Willson and Chris Cote, harp player Mark Hummel, Al Basile on Cornet, and a second horn section to boot. It’s little wonder on the latter, given that brass dominates the proceedings, adding a solid stomp to the driving, double-time designs of “What Can I Do,” the effortless instrumental “Rock Alley,” the solid stomp of “You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’,” and the defiant delivery of “You Played on My Piano,” which is further stoked by Willson’s sassy singing.

“Being that I have a great band that has been with me for a long while, I just needed to bring in any extra people I felt I needed,” Robillard says of his efforts to add further prowess to his already sturdy support crew. “I contacted my old friends from my original Roomful of Blues horn section and they were all up for it. I have been having issues with my voice, so I invited great vocalists, Chris Cote and Michelle Willson to be a part of it. I knew it would be fun and good music. Both Chris and Michelle are very experienced singers and did their vocals live with the band in the studio. That’s what blues music is about so it really was a Blues Bash!

Indeed, the only song that slows the pace to any degree at all is the final offering, ideally dubbed “Just Chillin’,” which, with its sprawling twilight tempo, allows Robillard’s fretwork to share the spotlight to a greater degree at a slow and unhurried pace.

“For me, the blues, which has so many stylistic variations, has infinite possibilities,” Robillard maintains. “I find in many ways the search for them is more stimulating than learning completely different musical things. It’s had a huge impact on popular music for most of the last century. And I continue to find ways to reinterpret it. I feel that if the music is truly creative and well played, it won’t be a copy of what you’ve done before. But that can, of course happen. I do generally try to avoid that as much as I can. But change for the sake of change is even a more dangerous pitfall.”

Robillard goes on to say that while the recording was delayed due to the pandemic, it did shape his approach in a roundabout way. “hen the news hit the street in late February about COVID 19, I was due to make a new album soon for Stony Plain,” he recalls. “I realized we had better get into the studio quick while it was relatively safe. I had been thinking about recording a traditional blues album, so I quickly decided to pick tunes I loved and that I had thought about recording over the course of my career, plus a few original tunes of mine as well. It felt like time for me to do a total traditional style album and with the restrictions that were about to come upon us, a live blues album made a lot of sense. So within a week we were at Lakewest Recording in recording it.”

The question that’s confronted here of course is that given the mix of between Robillard’s originals and an equal number of covers, how does one inject their own imprint into such a timeless template and do equal justice to sounds that veer between the classics and the contemporary. Robillard offered a ready explanation.

“I often jump around in the studio to try and capture the idea or feeling I have at the time,” he says. “I often jump between doing a more traditional record, and then I may record a more open-style with more influences. I see value in both sides and I follow the muse when it shows me a direction. But I do feel that if you can improvise and keep the feeling of traditional style, that’s great. I love older style blues and jazz, and I go back further all the time in my listening and research.”

Indeed, Robillard’s reverence for his roots is obvious.

“Blues is music of tradition,” he  insists. “It has been handed down, borrowed and stolen, and it keeps on going. In reality, blues is not a commercial music. It has been commercialized or popularized, but its main function is to be music that helps let out emotion, both sad and happy. And it’s damn good dance music, also.

Ultimately, Blues Bash! makes the latter abundantly clear.

Roots music fans will get a special early Christmas present when Stony Plain Records artist Duke Robillard and his band perform a free live stream album release show of his new CD, Blues Bash with Duke Robillard &Friends, (releasing November 20th) at the Narrows Center in Fall River, Mass. on Friday, December 4 at 8:00 PM Eastern Time. For more info and to watch the free live steam visit: https://www.narrowscenter.org/live-stream-duke-robillard-band-12-4-20/

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