Russ Green, City Soul, Cleopatra Records, blues CD review by Rex Bartholomew

                                                    

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CD REVIEW -- Russ Green
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RUSS GREEN

City Soul

Cleopatra Records

Russ Green City Soul CD

By Rex Bartholomew

Russ Green is a Chicago native who found the blues later in life, though listening to his debut album from Cleopatra Records, City Soul, makes it easy to assume that he has been singing and blowing the harp since he was a little kid. But Russ did not start his musical journey until he was a film student at SIU-Carbondale, where he did not have enough money for guitar so he took up the harmonica instead. Later on, his film production and director jobs in Chicago allowed him to learn from the best blues talent pool on the planet, including Sugar Blue and Billy Branch, whose harp influence is clearly heard on this disc.

City Soul is an hour-long set of blues and R&B, which is served up with hints of jazz and funk. On display are polished vocals and tricky harmonica from Green, who also wrote all ten of the songs and served as co-producer of this release. The production quality is clean with recording, mixing and mastering courtesy of Rick Barnes at Rax Trax in Chicago. Russ is backed by a fine crew of musicians on this effort, including Giles Corey on guitar, Marvin Little on bass, Ricky Nelson behind the drum kit, Vince Agwada on slide guitar, and Joe Munroe on the B3.

The set kicks off with “First Thing Smokin’” and there is no doubt that this man has Chicago in his soul as he lays down a classic boogie with style. Green’s voice is gorgeous and smooth and he displays plenty of range as he ventures into a smoky baritone. His harmonica is distorted and edgy but remains musical throughout, and he is definitely a first-call harp man.  There is a nice twist here as the title might lead the listener to think one thing, but instead it is the story of a man who picked the wrong lady and now has to get out of Dodge on “the first thing smokin’.”

Green stretches the blues genre in each of its directions on this disc, but all of the songs have a cohesive feel so none of them are out of place. This is an album that can be listened to in one sitting without getting bored or feeling the need to skip tracks. One example, “The Edge” has a hard-edged harmonica intro with a Hendrix-inspired exploration of how much the sound of a harp can be pushed, then the tune transforms into a fine piece of blues-rock with a sobering message of loneliness and pain. The band also gets the chance to show off their capable rock chops on “Train of Pain” and “Somethin’ New,” and their arrangements are super-tight.

  This group is equally adept with other genres, and “Believe in Love” would probably be considered rhythm and blues, though there are hints of jazz with Munro’s Hammond and Nelson’s drums.  There is also a nice hard-edged funk to “Lover Man” and “Lint in My Pocket,” both of which have smart lyrics and more slick harmonica riffs than you can shake a stick at. 

There is one side trip on City Soul, and that is on track 4, “Goin’ Down South,” which features blues veteran Eric Bibb on harmony vocals and acoustic guitar. This song has a swampy blues feel, with a sparser instrumentation that allows room for Eric’s solo work and Russ’ tasteful harmonica fills. This simpler structure also allows the listener a chance to focus on the lyrics, which are the story of a man who wants to learn more about the history of racism in our country. There is some incredible songwriting on his disc!

Before the listener knows it, the album draws to a close with “Love to Give,” a funky piece of R&B with a fat bass line from Marvin Little, funky syncopated guitar from Giles Corey, and nice drum fills from Ricky Nelson. Green’s lyrics seem more emotional on this track as he pushes his voice just a bit to get a dirty sound, and it is cool to see how much versatility he can achieve with his vocals.

Russ Green is a gem of the Chicago blues scene, and he is the whole package: songwriter, singer, and harp man. Green learned well from Branch and Sugar Blue, but he has found his own voice and has a lot of good stuff to say while also being a consummate performer. Russ delivers all of this, and with the help of a fine crew of musicians, he has delivered a winner with City Soul. You can learn more about the man and his music at www.russgreenmusic.com, and be sure to check into Chicago Blues Guide regularly to see where Russ will be performing next!

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