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CD Review -- Sugar Blue

SUGAR BLUE

Threshold

Beeble Music

 Sugar Blue CD

By Dave Glynn

 

After seeing Sugar Blue at this past summer’s (2009) Blue on the Fox festival in Aurora, Illinois, I would say that Sugar is at the top of his game.  He literally blew all of the other performers off the stage, with the exception of the headliner Los Lobos and some would say that was only because Watermelon Slim acted as buffer between the acts.  Sugar Blue has such an incredible command of his instrument (harmonica) and of the Blues in general that I was kind of shocked at the diversion of his latest offering, Threshold. 

 

Threshold is an eclectic offering and in mixing several styles and genres, Sugar Blue presents a political picture that stresses working class struggles and social injustices.  His playing succeeds in kicking every song up a notch and shows off his chromatic harp playing with a European style that is seldom heard in the Blues for which he is best known.  But even though this album doesn’t feature many Blues-styled songs, the Blues are written all over it!

 

The supporting cast is strong including his bass/keyboard player co-writer and road boss, Ilaria Lantieri, electric guitarist Rico McFarland, acoustic and electric guitarist Motoaki Makino, Damiano Della Torre on keys/accordion and drummer James Knowles.  Other musicians on tracks here and there include Noel Neal on bass, Jess Cross on bass, Sergio Monaleni on guitar, Samuel Torres, percussion, Ivano Ghidoni on sousaphone.  When was the last time someone acknowledged the sousaphone player outside of a marching band record, eh?

 

The styles explored in this CD encompass jazz, rock, blues, and pop.  And several different styles within styles – the jazz songs range from European to Fusion to New Orleans.  The blues vary from a different, funky take on, i.e. Junior Wells’ “Messin’ with the Kid” and a very Chicago sounding Leiber & Stoller’s “Trouble” (dedicated to Elvis), to a very stark “Ramblin’” that features a haunting duet of two harmonicas.

 

The opening tune, “Living Your Love” is a heartfelt, rock ode to the drama of ghetto life that kicks in the best message when Sugar picks up the harp.  I’d like to hear more background vocals on this song to really run it on home, especially on the “Living Your Love” chorus (Sugar, keep that in mind when your touring to support this album). 

 

“The Cotton Tree”, written for mentor James Cotton, is a jazz ballad. It’s also Sugar Blue’s theme song and ultimate message: “like the blues, I’ll always be there.” I felt this song to be one of the best on the album, but it’s a toss up to “Noel News”, a New Orleans-styled tune dedicated to the NOLA spirit.  “The Average Guy” carries a European feel and thematically reminds me of “Worried Man” a song Johnny Cash used to perform.  Aren’t we all a little worried at this point? 

 

“Don’t Call Me” is kind of scary for Sugar Blue. It’s a very soft, Bread-like ballad that could go over well in a 1970s lounge act. We’ll let him slide on this one. “Nightmare” is funky Blues with a Return to Forever feel, and is a fine return to form after “Don’t Call Me”.  Jesse Cross’ spanking bass and the keyboard vibes provided by Damiano Della Torre really lay the groundwork.  Sugar’s superb solo carries it along.  This closing number is good way to wrap up a variety of musical styles by getting back to Sugar’s strongest realm.

 

For Blues purists and those that are counting on a Blues record from Sugar Blue, you’d better be prepared for something different.  Overall, this is a very good project, well-produced and certainly interesting.  Sugar and his band traverse several styles successfully. It will be interesting to see the follow-up to this CD.  Get out to your favorite record store and pick up Threshold. 

 

Also, there is a bonus interview on the CD by an Italian (I’m guessing) reporter.  So if you want to delve more into Sugar Blue – he’s a pretty funny and charismatic dude and right on point with some life messages, listen in.  Read more about Sugar Blue on http://www.sugarblue.com.

 

 

About the reviewer:  Dave Glynn is the leader of the Empty Can Band: http://www.emptycanband.com.  Dave is also an organizer of the Blues on the Fox in Aurora: http://www.bluesonthefoxaurora.com.  This year’s festival is set for Friday and Saturday, June 18 & 19, 2010.   

 

 

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