The Duke Robillard Band
They Called It Rhythm & Blues
4 out of 5 stars
If Grammy-nominated jazz/blues guitarist Duke Robillard did nothing other than start Roomful of Blues in the early ’70s, and stay with them for a decade during their initial burst of success, his historical status in the blues world would be assured. But there is more, much more.
He replaced Jimmie Vaughan in the Fabulous Thunderbirds for a short while, has produced multiple artists in the jazz, blues and roots genres, worked as a band member behind Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and others, and racked up two Grammy nominations among the 37 solo albums he released in the past five decades. He has never wavered from a stalwart stance of promoting and performing music he loves, commercial considerations be damned, which has kept him as a well-known, highly respected cult figure.
That lack of widespread success hasn’t slowed down his output; he has been releasing about an album a year since 1994. They Called It Rhythm & Blues probably won’t raise Robillard’s overall profile either, but it’s another impressive notch on his extensive career belt.
He’s no stranger to inviting guests to assist on his recorded sessions, and he grows that tradition here by welcoming Sue Foley, Sugar Ray Norcia, Kim Wilson, Michelle Willson, and John Hammond to this bustling jump blues/R&B party. They, along with Robillard band member Chris Cote, handle vocals on the majority of these 18 songs. It’s a savvy move since that not only fills a need for talented singers (Robillard’s own voice can best be described as “serviceable”) but may attract fans of those artists to Robillard’s camp.
The track list is primarily covers, although some so obscure that only the deepest of blues fans would know they are not written by Robillard. From Howlin’ Wolf’s “No Place to Go” with John Hammond’s flinty singing to Mickey & Sylvia’s frisky “No Good Lover” featuring Robillard dueting with Foley, and Michelle Willson getting sleazy on the classic noir slow blues “Trouble in Mind,” Robillard coaxes these folks to some sizzling performances.
Fabulous Thunderbirds founder Kim Wilson recreates two of his band’s older originals with the charging “Tell Me Why” along with the moody grind of “The Things I Forgot to Do,” and Sugar Ray digs his harp into the swampy, Little Walter inspired “Rambler Blues.”
Robillard deserves credit for letting his musical friends take the spotlight. Regardless, he makes his presence known by adding sharp, perfectly placed staccato lines to the material. He’s no showoff, yet his playing enhances these tracks without the need for fret shredding or six-string histrionics, something other frontmen might spotlight on albums where their name is featured on the front cover. Check out “The Way You Do” by the little-known bluesman Jimmy Nolen to get a taste of his class and sophistication as he lays out a solo that’s a model of a less-is-more approach.
Those who already own a few Robillard albums won’t find anything new here, but reinventing the blues wheel has never been his M.O. Rather, the appropriately titled They Called It Rhythm & Blues provides over an hour of classic, swinging sounds performed with the heart, soul and enthusiasm that will get the blood of any true blues fan bubbling.
Photo by Pat Quinn / Mark Pucci Media