Jim Gustin’s force-of-nature voice evokes Long John Baldry and perhaps Canadians Big Doug McLean and Jim Byrnes. There’s some Joe Cocker in there too. He has a natural smoky rasp in his baritone that’s simply perfect for the funky blues he and his band lay down. So, while Gustin’s vocals are enough to carry this effort, there’s female counterbalance in the soulful gospel-like vocals of his partner, Jeri Goldenhar (aka Truth Jones). The pair wrote all eleven originals, Gustin with four and collaborations on seven, many where Truth Jones takes the lead vocal. This is well-paced album with plenty of energy burners fueled by swirling B3, pounding piano, piercing guitar, blaring horns, incessant rhythms and vocals from five musicians on the choruses.
Lessons Learned is their third release from the Santa Clarita, CA -based team and follows the equally strong 2017 Memphis. While the previous two were produced by West Coast producer Terry Wilson, Wilson tales a co-producer role here but did the mixing and engineering. Wilson has worked with Eric Burden, Teresa James, and Ana Popovic, among others. Gustin also makes plenty of statements with his economical, funky guitar leads. Scott Duncan anchors the rhythm section on bass with Chuck Strong on drums. Steve Alterman, who returns from the last album, handles the keys with Lawrence Tamez on sax for some tracks. For this effort, Wilson recruited several special guests including Tower of Power trumpeter Lee Thornburg, Harp Attack man Chris LeRoi Hansen, guitarist Tommy Marsh (Crooked Eye Tommy), saxophonist Jim Scimonetti, And Jones’ daughter Jill Horman, who also sings on a few selections. Wilson also contributes guitar, percussion, and keys.
There’s some great blues music made today by artists living in Southern California Gustin has been playing as a sideman in the area for nearly 40 years across numerous rock and blues acts. He’s had high profile gigs at Staples Center, for example. This is a pairing of two veterans that somehow found each other performing at the same church, charity events or blues society gatherings.
The set opens with one you’ve heard countless times – a tale of too much partying with Gustin and Jones trading verses on the boogie “I’d Been Drinking.” It kicks into gear with Jones singing lead on the horn driven “I Heard About You,” a standout track. Then Gustin sings what could become the band’s theme song in the politically tinged “Truth.” The band then demonstrates some versatility, bringing it down to a simmer with Jones singing a jazzy ballad, “When the Ship Sails,’ featuring nice piano spots from Alterman and a mournful sax from Tamez.
Gustin steps in with his gravelly baritone and stinging axe, stomping along on “I Hate to See You Go.” The band employs a rumba rhythm for “Never Forget” as they duet on the vocal. They get Memphis greasy on the standout, “All You Ever Bring Me Is the Blues,” with roof raising solos from Gustin, Alterman (piano), and Tamez. Just when the album calls for a relaxed tempo, they move to the back porch for the acoustic “Never Too Big for the Blues” with guests Hansen and Marsh contributing. Gustin steps forward, Joe Cocker style for the piano driven “Rockslide” before we slide back into a sensual ballad “My Love Is True,” showcasing Jones and Gustin again as a duet, each testifying to each other. Their gospel rocking hymn “Three Things” brings this terrific recording to a glorious close.
Terry Wilson has done great work with Teresa James & The Rhythm Tramps, earning them a Grammy nomination in 2018 for Here in Babylon. He’s brought some of that big sound vibe to this one, varying the material and sound to avoid the common trap of too many repetitive riffs and predictable groves that plague many blues bands. Gustin and Jones distinguish themselves with their soulful heart-felt vocals. And, as I’ve said before, if nothing else, you need to hear Jim Gustin’s voice. My bet is that you can’t get enough of it and his partner Jones offers the perfect counterpoint.
- Jim Hynes