Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
RONNIE BAKER BROOKS
Times Have Changed
by Greg Easterling
It's been a long time coming but Ronnie Baker Brooks' new 2017 release, Times Have Changed rings in the year with a salute to his musical roots while looking ahead to the future of the blues. Brooks' last solo album, The Torch, came out in 2006 on his own Watchdog Records label; his fifth and latest album has now been released in cooperation with Provogue, a record company from the Netherlands that has distributed previous albums by Robert Cray, Robben Ford, and Joe Louis Walker. There's a sense of anticipation this year for Brooks with the release of a new album as he turns 50 and looks forward to headlining the historic 2017 Chicago Blues Festival as it moves to Millennium Park for the very first time.
The latest chapter in his recording career finds Ronnie in a comfortable position as he mines the past while using his accumulated experience to create a number of songs that should stay on his live set list for years to come. Brooks primarily recorded Times Have Changed in three different cities, Memphis, Nashville and New York City over a period of several years. A talented producer is a great way to start and Brooks got one of the best for his latest in Steve Jordan, a veteran musician and producer whose musical resume includes the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, the Blues Brothers, Steve Wonder, Eric Clapton and John Mayer.
Jordan called on his onetime Blues Brothers mate, the legendary guitarist and producer Steve Cropper to help Ronnie kick off the album with the classic Joe Tex hit, “Show Me.” The studio band finds the groove early and what a band Brooks and Jordan assembled: Willie Weeks on bass, the Rascals' legendary Felix Cavaliere on Hammond organ, a choice selection of Memphis and onetime Hollywood Horns players Ben Cauley, Jim Horn, Lannie McMillan and Jack Hale, Sr. plus Jordan on drums. Ronnie rides the groove with his soulful lead vocals and electric guitar. Just hear the excitement in his voice when he calls on Cropper to take his solo midway through the track.
It's a great start to the album and Brooks follows with an original number that he penned with jam band rocker “Big Head” Todd Park Mohr, who also takes a solo here. “Doing Too Much” is the first of Ronnie's songs that deliver a certain message he wants to get across. A Good man doesn't reach the half century mark without the need to share some of what he has seen in his travels around the sun. Brooks cautions against “keeping up with the Jones'” while pursuing a lifestyle of too much work and play that is bound to catch up with you. Musically, Ronnie taps into the hallowed environs of Memphis' Royal Studios with the Hodges' brothers of Hi Rhythm Section fame who once worked their magic on many an Al Green hit.
The album's title track has classic written all over it while stretching the boundaries of the blues in a natural and most appealing way. Times Have Changed is Ronnie's comment on the reality of contemporary life in the community: crime, broken relationships, neglected children and the gap between rich and poor. Brooks has already witnessed the effect that this song has on live audiences and gives one of his best performances vocally with a great guitar solo to match. “Nothing remains the same/today it's a brand new game/cause times have changed”. Blues purists might not approve but Ronnie collaborates with rapper Al Kapone later in the song and it totally works. It's a seamless fusion of a B.B. King style blues ballad with a Marvin Gaye “What's Going On” sensibility and the immediacy of rap that has informed urban culture for decades now, well worth checking out.
“Long Story Short” is next, a nice funky contemporary blues jam that runs close to six minutes featuring another one of Ronnie's best guitar solos combined with elements of the Hi Rhythm section, Memphis Horns and the sometime Clapton supporting players of Jordan and Weeks. You really can't get much better! That's the same cast that contributes to Brooks' irresistible cover of the vintage R&B hit “Twine Time” which also features a short cameo from Ronnie's legendary blues man dad Lonnie Brooks.
Midway through Times Have Changed, Ronnie slips back into a string of classic ballads and soul that make for great listening. He pulls “Give Me Your Love (Love Song)” from Chicago icon Curtis Mayfield and the Superfly soundtrack, featuring a duet with Angie Stone. A vocal recording of the late Bobby “Blue” Bland opens Ronnie's cover of the Clapton/Cray collaboration, “Old Love,” a favorite of Brooks' that originally appeared on Clapton's Journeyman LP. Then it's funky time again with another Joe Tex cover, “Give The Baby Anything the Baby Wants” and a great workout on the Rascals' “Come On Up” with the song's writer Felix Cavaliere on Hammond organ and backing vocals.
For the album's home stretch, Brooks cues up two originals: the funky blues of a song he wrote with Keb' Mo', “Wham Bam Thank You Sam” and the heartfelt soul of “When I Was We” to close.
Ten years is a long time to wait for a new record but as Ronnie will tell you, he has been busy touring and collaborating with others while putting aside ideas for songs and his next time in the studio. Like the times, the record industry has changed and blues artists rarely sign anything close to long term deals anymore while the total volume of albums sold has diminished as well. When an album of this quality appears, one hopes the public and the media will get behind it. Times Have Changed is not your father's blues album but it is a fun, funky ride through Ronnie's past influences while shaping his corner of the blues for continuing success and musical evolution. And if the title track is any indication, we will hear a lot more down the road from Ronnie Baker Brooks.
For info or to buy the CD: http://www.ronniebakerbrooks.com/
Greg Easterling holds down the 12 midnight – 5 a.m. shift on WDRV (97.1 FM) He also hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.