Review: Robert Finley’s ‘Black Bayou’ Exudes Raw, Swampy Authenticity

Robert Finley
Black Bayou
(Easy Eye)
4 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

Dan Auerbach’s ongoing support for bluesman Robert Finley is not the only reason his Easy Eye imprint nabbed Billboard’s Blues Label of the Year award in 2022. But it’s a convincing example of Auerbach’s vision and dedication to rugged roots music.

The twosome return with their third alliance since 2017 (the year Easy Eye was formed), for another rollicking, rolling set of the 69-year-old Finley’s Louisiana-based soul, blues, and gospel-laced intensity. However, the recording process has changed this time. Instead of rehearsing, writing, and mapping out songs before heading into the studio, they, and a host of talented players—including bassist Eric Deaton, guitarist Kenny Brown, (both longtime Auerbach associates), along with his Black Keys co-founder drummer Patrick Carney—crafted the tunes on the fly. While the rhythms and riffs will sound familiar to fans of the genre (think a darker version of Booker T. and the MG’s), there’s a crispness created by this less structured environment that is natural, earthy, and spontaneous.

Oh yeah / Well, well, I gotta tell the truth sings Finley in his gusty baritone on the opening of the appropriately titled “Gospel Blues.” That authenticity pervades these eleven tracks, exemplified in the heartbreaking soulful blues of “Nobody Wants to be Lonely,” a treatise on visiting his abandoned friends in the old folk’s home sung to a gripping melody sounding like something from the great singer Solomon Burke’s catalog. Alternately the band lays into a raw, funky “Suzie Q” lick for “What Goes Around (Comes Around),” with horns, harp, a stinging guitar solo, and backing vocals by Finley’s daughter and granddaughter. While those clichéd titular lyrics aren’t exactly illuminating, no one will care as the group plunges into their propulsive groove.

On the frisky “Sneakin’ Around,” which borrows licks from Otis Redding’s “Tramp,” Finley tells of a soon-to-be ex-lover who gave his friends lap dances, as he repeats the song’s title while the instrumentation boils and shakes.  “Miss Kitty” locks into a low-down guitar figure bringing the listener into the darkest woods of a humid Louisiana night.

The closing “Alligator Bait” finds Finley and company wading in a swampy morass as thick, muggy, and sticky as the album’s name. The singer recounts a tale of his grandfather using him as alligator bait in the backwoods.   I’m not going back in the jungle/You can’t get me back to the swamp he says as the stripped-down group, featuring Auerbach and Brown’s guitars sparring with each other, simmers and boils behind him.

In Robert Finley, Dan Auerbach has found the personification of the blues sounds he has always loved. Hopefully, this collaboration continues to yield results as unaffected, organic, and pulse-pounding as the music permeates Black Bayou.  

Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival

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