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CD Review -- Billy Flynn

BILLY FLYNN

Blues Drive

Land O’ Blues Records

Billy Flynn CD

 

By Mark Baier

Road tested Billy Flynn has been a stalwart on the Chicago blues scene for going on 40 years, both as a frontman and a hired gun. Listening to his first Land O’ Blues release, the two-CD package Blues Drive, it's obvious that those thousands of road miles represent blues dues paid in full!  

Billy always has held strong affection for instrumental compositions as the title track, “Blues Drive,” illustrates. Its West Side funk rhythms provide the groove Flynn and company need to relax with the listener, and his easy conversational guitar style, evocative of early Otis Rush or Jimmy Dawkins, is never rushed or overstated. In an era where guitar competence is measured more in volume and Stevie Ray-esque bombast than nuance, Billy's ability to tell a musical story that's both sensitive and raw is a rare talent indeed.

 Vocal numbers include turns by Flynn and bandmate Ricky Nelson as well as harmonica great Kim Wilson, from the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Billy's humble vocal style is a perfect match for the bouncing shuffles "Hearts on Fire" and "I'm Hooked" and Wilson’s deep emotional reading of Flynn’s "Big Money Problems" is as heartfelt and memorable as any blues, from any era. Flynn not only lends his obvious guitar talents to this production, but also blows harmonica with such a natural melodic style that it belies his status as a "guitar player". Adding to the dimension and aural richness of this collection is the tasteful use of the electric sitar. This reviewer never thought it possible to write that particular combination of words; "tasteful electric sitar", but by golly, Flynn’s gone and done it. Substituting the sitar’s twangy resonances for conventional distortion-laden electric guitar lead lines, Billy forces the listener to concentrate on the mood, melody and impact of the song, rather than focusing on self-evident guitar techniques. A highlight of disc one is certainly Flynn's interpretation of Johnny Fuller’s "First Stage of the Blues". Employing a wah-wah guitar sound that would make Earl Hooker take notice, Flynn leads the band, with Kim Wilson’s vocals out front, through a masterful workout of this seminal side.

For a backing band, Billy was able to finally record with his long time road warriors from the Deitra Farr band: drummer Ricky Nelson, keyboardist Roosevelt Purifoy and bassist Felton Crews. Their familiarity and intimate dynamic is a joy to spend time with. Their ability to cover any modern or archaic style with ease -- from West Side boogies, smooth cocktail club romantic ballads to back porch acoustic rags -- yields a listening experience that is a virtual sonic museum of blues genres.

Disc two retains the same band minus the cameos of Kim Wilson. The opening track "Tearin It Up" is a funkified rave up that could have been lifted from a 1970s Isley Brothers LP, and it is an apt warm-up for the up-tempo guitar showpieces that follow. Flynn steps out with bold, assertive excursions that are extended and complex, yet never tiresome or redundant. Billy’s sense of melody and structure are peerless, and it's this trait that separates his playing from many of his contemporaries. In the hands of a competent guitarist, a blues shuffle is often no more than a vehicle for showing off one's instrumental chops; in the hands of Billy Flynn the same shuffle is a conversation with a close friend, a sonic poem that is musical and emotive, deliberate and lasting in its impact. Heady praise, no doubt, but Billy Flynn has earned it, by bringing Chicago's musical heritage to a worldwide audience, and doing it with a taste and mastery that are unequalled. Highly recommended!

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