Duke Robillard & His All-Star Band
Six Strings of Steel
If you’re a follower of Duke Robillard, you’ll notice that he’s changed labels and is back on M.C. Records, where he issued his 2017 Duke Robillard & His Dames of Rhythm. The label change doesn’t produce many other changes, thankfully, as his regular bandmates are aboard for Six Strings of Steel, a self-described look back at many guitar and song styles that were important to him from his earliest days as a teenager. This too is certainly not new, as Robillard has made a career of demonstrating his ease with jump blues, and the blues of Texas, Kansas City, New Orleans, Chicago, and the West Coast. Aboard for the ride are long timers – bassist Marty Ballou, drummer Mark Teixeira, saxophonist Doug James, and keyboardist Bruce Bears. Vocalist Chris Cote, who appeared on Robillard’s last album, 2022’s They Called It Rhythm & Blues (Stony Plain) is now a full-fledged band member. Fiddler Katie Shore from Asleep at the Wheel joins on “Watching the River Flow.” Despite the title, the album is clearly more about the songs and full band renditions than a series of showcased guitar solos. Sure, they are present, but the solos are succinct and in service to the songs. Heck, Robillard has nothing to prove in terms of his guitar virtuosity.
As we know, Robillard has a deep love for ‘50s R&B and early rock n’ roll. There are more than a few examples here beginning with the tremolo infused “Git With It,” rather surprisingly from jazz guitar great Barney Kessel but in the vein of such seminal rock n-roll groups as Duane Eddy and the Rebels and Johnny and the Hurricanes. James’ baritone sax is the finishing touch on this old school sound. Staying in vintage mode as he does throughout, he covers Smiley Lewis’ NOLA sound of “Shame, Shame, Shame” which is the first of several vocal takes by Cote as the band swings behind the Ballou -Teixeira rhythm tandem. Later they revisit NOLA with the Fats Domino hit “I’m Gonna be a Wheel Someday,” giving it a Ska arrangement and a shout chorus, the latter of which may be one of the few missteps here. Robillard takes the vocal on what he calls one of the most infectious tunes he’s ever heard, “Lima Beans,” written and sung by Eddie Ware, it is credited to tenor saxophonist Eddie Chamblee on the 1951 Chess Record. James more than upholds the role of the tenorist, actually employed both tenor and baritone on this one.
Robillard hands the vocal to Cote for Chuck Willis’ “Love Struck,” a tune that Duke sang on the first Roomful of Blues album in 1977. Cote injects plenty of feeling into the tune imbued by Bears on B3 and a stinging solo from the leader. Robillard then steps away from the theme of the album with a new song dedicated to his wife with “In Perfect Harmony,” dusting off his songwriting chops with a nod to Motown as Cote again takes the lead vocal.
You’re likely aware that Robillard played guitar on Dylan’s classic Time Out of Mind but instead of retreating to that material, he covers “Watching the River Flow,” as the suggestion of label owner and producer Mark Carpentieri. With their own arrangement, they give it a bit of Texas flavor with Shore’s fiddle. Leo Parker’s instrumental “Billy in the Lion’s Den” if a feature for James on baritone and the rhythm section, the kind of jump blues that stamps Robillard’s endearing style as he plays in the style of the late jazz guitarist Bill Jennings. Ike Tuner’s “Take Your Fine Frame Home” gets a rockabilly makeover with a stellar tenor turn from James before Robillard weighs in with his own tasty licks. “Groovin’ in the Swamp” is band improvised jam with nods to guitar influences James Burton and Steve Cropper. “Lovin’ You” is a tribute to its author, Lowell Fulson, an underrated blues great that Robillard has long admired, and as such, takes the vocal here. Closing with Link Wray’s power chord laden “Rumble,” Robillard indicates that it’s the first song he ever learned to play and calls it a sound that influenced a generation of guitar wannabes.
If old school is your thing, this one’s for you.
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