“They Called It Rhythm & Blues” for good reason. Is there a better way to describe how everyday down-and-out stuff can be lit up in a shindig of happy, catchy music? Duke Robillard sure knows Rhythm & Blues, and he sure as heck knows how to throw a party. His first two albums were called “Roomful of Blues” and “Let’s Have a Party,” the 1977 and ’78 one-two punches that launched the recording career of the still robust institution he’d founded a decade earlier. Robillard left Roomful of Blues long ago, but he still performs in their retro big band style, among all the other blues styles he’s since mastered.
Duke Robillard’s been in The Fabulous Thunderbirds and even Bob Dylan’s band, among others, because he’s that kind of a guitarist. Throughout “They Called It Rhythm & Blues,” he offers one master class after another, displaying a rainbow of blue tones from T-Bone Walker smoothness to Albert Collins bite. He certainly revisits the kinds of music he played while in Roomful, but since the clear intent was to have a blues party of the highest order here, the host of notable friends he invited consistently boost the variety.
Boston-based singer Chris Cote fits right in, his immense, excited manner in the opening, jumping “Here I’m Is” an instant head-turner. Sue Foley joins for the galloping “No Good Lover,” all sweet and sassy in voice and stinging in her guitar solo like a red Texas scorpion. As a singer himself, Robillard’s always projected toughness, and a measure of suave. He shares those qualities with Kim Wilson and Sugar Ray Norcia. Wilson not only sings up a rollicking storm on a reprise of The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Tell Me Why” here, but he blows tornadoes of his patented harmonica through its cool, boisterous beat. Norcia, also a Roomful vet, gets deep into the rhumba rhythms of “Rambler’s Blues,” his voice mournful, his harp sweltering.
I was fortunate enough to catch Duke Robillard and John Hammond together and unaccompanied in a record store in 1995, promoting Hammond’s “Found True Love,” which Robillard produced and played on. Together again 27 years later, the two blues legends sound ageless and hot on Lil’ Son Jackson’s rickety “Homeless Blues,” also featuring the tasty piano of Bruce Bears. After-hours-smoky and smoldering, “Trouble in Mind” features the great Michelle Willson in torch mode, with ex-Roomful trumpet player Doug Woolverton matching her the whole swaying way. On “Outta Here,” Robillard sings with cool disdain of his displeasure with a woman, all the while nailing the rubbery groove, greasy hooks and sharp guitar of his 1980s band The Pleasure Kings.
Duke is the king of this kind of thing. “They Called it Rhythm & Blues” plays like his generous 18-song best of, but it’s all brand-new, and it’ll certainly go down as one of the finest blues albums this year — or any other.
The Duke Robillard Band
‘They Called It Rhythm & Blues’
Label: Stony Plain Records
Release: March 18, 2022
- Here I’m Is – Chris Cote – vocal
- No Good Lover – Duke Robillard – vocal; Sue Foley – vocal and guitar; Mike Flanigin – organ
- Fools Are Getting Scarcer – Chris Cote – vocal
- Tell Me Why – Kim Wilson – vocal and harmonica; Matt McCabe – piano
- Rambler Blues – Sugar Ray Norcia – vocal and harmonica
- The Way You Do – Chris Cote – vocal
- Champagne Mind – Michelle Willson – vocal
- Homeless Blues – John Hammond – vocal and guitar
- Outta Here – Duke Robillard – vocal, Anita Suhanin – vocals
- In The Wee Wee Hours – Chris Cote – vocal
- Someday After Awhile – Chris Cote – vocal
- She’s My Baby – Sugar Ray Norcia – vocals and harmonica
- Trouble In Mind – Michelle Willson – vocal
- No Place To Go – John Hammond – vocal and guitar
- The Things I Forgot To Do – Kim Wilson – vocal
- I Can’t Understand It – Chris Cote – vocal
- Eat Where You Slept Last Night – Duke Robillard – vocal
- Swingin’ For Four Bills – Duke Robillard, Sue Foley – guitar; Mike Flanigin – organ