Album review: Johnny Rawls ‘Tiger in a Cage,’ timeless soul & blues for modern-day times

Johnny Rawls Like a Tiger in a Cage

“Tiger In a Cage” is a shot of soulful adrenaline from Blues Music Award-winning singer and guitarist Johnny Rawls.

Rawls has been a musical journeyman ever since he began lighting it up in the Delta as a teenager in Purvis and Gulfport, Mississippi. While still dealing with books and teachers’ dirty looks in high-school, he was on stage with stars that included Little Johnny Taylor, Z.Z. Hill and Joe Tex and The Sweet Inspirations. His formative rise was cemented in the early 1970s when Rawls was hired as the bandleader for the legendary pipes of soul singer O.V. Wright. When the singer died in 1979, Rawls kept the band going for a numbers of years with myriad guests and stars.

That storied history is represented with great grace and charm on “Tiger In a Cage,” which is solidly rooted in the sounds of Wright, Jackie Wilson and Robert Cray. The 12 songs run the gamut of the tender soul on “Reckless Heart” to the light-hearted and carefree “Keep It Loose.”

Rawls’ employed the talents of The Rays to flesh out the songs on his heart. Johnny McGhee (guitar), Bob Renchard (bass), Richy Puga (drums), Dan Ferguson (keyboards and accordion), Andy Roman (alto/tenor saxophone), Mike Middleton (trumpet), Robert Claiborne (trombone) and Nick Flood (baritone sax) are a hearty group that add a timeless quality to the music.

That’s because soul never dies, it lives on in the music and people and Rawls is a great ambassador of it. “Having a Party” is a high-flying party-starter that would ignite any blues bar on Beale Street in Memphis, having freshly arrived to the city on the sunny groove of “Red Cadillac” and Rawls’ sprightly vocals. Rawls has a honey-coated bass that is reminiscent of Wright, but not brought down by the weight of the world. If anything, Rawls is trying to combat the world’s dark matter, like on the mean-street blues of the city in “Tiger In a Cage,” with rosier perspectives such as the Jackie Wilson cover “Your Love Is Lifting Me (Higher And Higher)” and the flirty “Lucy.”

On “Southern Honey” Rawls brings over a little Cajun company in the form of the gorgeous, sexy voice of Eden Brent that is all smiles. Rawls and Brent have a real chemistry as they trade verses about getting lost in each other’s nectar and the Southern-fried addition of accordion and violin give the album a different and succulent flavor.

Put on “Tiger In a Cage” and you’ll find yourself getting pleasantly lost in the history of soul.

  •  Johnny Rawls
    “Tiger In a Cage”
    Catfood Records
    Release: Feb. 19, 2016
    Notable Tracks: “Southern Honey,” “Having a Party”

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