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CD REVIEW -- Curtis Salgado & Alan Hager
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CURTIS SALGADO & ALAN HAGER

Rough Cut

Alligator Records

Curtis Salgado & Alan Hager CD

By Robin Zimmerman

From tearing it up at the old Dixie Square Mall to blasting their battered Bluesmobile over a drawbridge, the Blues Brothers flick is a Chicago-centric classic. But John Belushi didn’t just morph into that “Joliet Jake” persona. He had a little coaching from a harmonica player who has lived and breathed the blues for over 30 years—Curtis Salgado.

Belushi first encountered Salgado while the artist was playing a sizzling set in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon. Belushi was taking a break from filming “Animal House” and went ape over Salgado’s style and musical chops. The pair bonded over classic blues records and a shared appreciation for the genre.  

While Belushi’s story has been widely documented, Salgado’s blues saga reads like the stuff of legend. The self-taught harmonica virtuoso and deeply soulful singer has a garden variety of laurels to rest on. These range from co-fronting the Robert Cray band to touring with the likes of Santana and Steve Miller. Then, there are all those Blues Music Awards including three in 2017 for his Alligator Record release The Beautiful Lowdown.

But, it hasn’t all been awards shows and accolades for Salgado. He’s had more than his share of health issues including battling liver and lung cancer. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery last year. He miraculously bounced back and emerged even more dedicated to creating music and collaborating with fellow artists.  

One of Salgado’s favorite collaborators is guitarist Alan Hager. Like Salgado, he’s a musical prodigy and product of the West Coast by way of Portland, Oregon. After playing in local clubs as a teenager, he went east where he attended Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music. Although he studied under famed jazz master, Pat Metheny, Hager never lost his love for the blues legends he cut his teeth on.

Hager and Salgado first met in the late eighties but it wasn’t until 2003 that these two kindred spirits started playing together. Hager joined Salgado’s band full-time in 2015. They’ve performed at festivals all around the world including the 2016 Chicago Blues Festival as part of Alligator Record’s 40th Anniversary Celebration.

Although this pair have seemingly been everywhere, they are circling back to their blues roots on their new Alligator release, Rough Cut. This stripped-down 13-track CD features both original tunes as well as cover songs. Like its name implies, Rough Cut was recorded live in one unrehearsed session.

While they recorded Rough Cut in one take, it’s obvious that this project was not taken lightly as their passion rings true on every single note. With titles like “I Will Not Surrender” and “I Want My Dog to Live Longer,” each original tune has a highly personal and evocative edge.

Produced by Hager and Salgado, this acoustic CD is very clearly a labor of love. Salgado’s impassioned vocals and razor-sharp harmonica pair perfectly with Hager’s guitar work, which runs the gamut from smooth grooves to full-blown barrelhouse.

The first track, “I Will Not Surrender” digs deep into the blues’ Delta heritage with Salgado’s world-weary vocals pairing perfectly with Hager’s impeccable guitar work. Penned by Salgado and Hager, this powerful opening number will satisfy any purist with a hankering for unfiltered Mississippi blues.

The second track, “So Near to Nowhere” showcases Salgado’s multi-faceted harmonica skills. This original number also highlights Salgado and Hager’s songwriting abilities with memorable lines like “I’m asking God why I’m not dead yet. He said, “I warned you boy but you never listen, the devil don’t want the competition.”  

      After the final impassioned harp lines on “So Near to Nowhere,” Rough Cut comes out swinging on Salgado’s rollicking “One Night Only.”  2018 Blues Music Award nominee, Jim Pugh, is called upon to tickle the ivories in this bawdy, barrelhouse style romp with fellow 2018 BMA nominee Jimi Bott on the skins.  

The next track, “I Want My Dog to Live Longer,” will strike a chord with any canine lover. As Salgado ticks off his wish list ranging from “reading the minds of women” to “being twenty years younger,” he confesses that his greatest wish is that “I want my dog to live longer.”

After this round of original songs, Rough Cut takes on blues classics made famous by masters like Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Son House.  The first cut, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” pays homage to Waters with a stellar effort by all musicians.  Here, Salgado’s gravely delivery combined with fine guitar work by Hager and bassist Keith Brush are punctuated by a steady backbeat provided by Russ Kleiner.

Williamson’s “Too Young to Die” and House’s “Depot Blues,” are right on track in staying true to the artist’s original intent, but with a decidedly Salgado/Hager slant.

Larhonda Steele joins Salgado on vocals and takes the listener to church on the next track, “Morning Train.” On this traditional blues/gospel number, their harmonies pair perfectly with Hager’s heavenly guitar work. Brian Foxworth provides pitch-perfect syncopation on drums. 

There’s some equally impressive slide guitar on the next track, Elmore James’ “You Got to Move.” This toe-tapping number again features Brush on bass and Kleiner on drums.

Salgado’s eschews the harp for piano on the next track, “Hell in a Handbasket.” Here, his spoken word delivery is perfectly suited for tongue-in-cheek lyrics like “When I’m dead and gone don’t bury me in a casket because I’m going to hell in a handbasket.”  

With Rough Cut so rooted in blues tradition, it’s fitting that there are several train-focused songs on tap. Robert Wilkins’ “Long Train Blues” conjures up images of well-traveled locomotives chugging through the vast expanse of Mississippi cotton fields.

Hager’s solo composition, “The Gift of Robert Charles” is a smooth instrumental that showcases his considerable slide guitar skills. Carlton Jackson comes on to play percussion on this song that starts slow and builds to a satisfying crescendo.

Rough Cut closes on an uplifting note with Big Bill Broonzy’s “I Want You By My Side.” This bouncy number features Hager, Salgado and Brush on bass. The title of this tune can also serve as a metaphor for the musical camaraderie that seems to predominate on Rough Cut.

Rough Cut represents a refreshing change of pace from over-produced releases by less-than-enthusiastic musicians. Whether it’s an original track or a well-crafted cover, Salgado and Hager’s love for the blues shines through on this passion project. Free of bells, whistles and artifice, Rough Cut still comes across as a polished effort by a pair of professional bluesmen and some like-minded cohorts.

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