Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
by Greg Easterling
Sugar Blue is a world class virtuoso harpist whose music is not always easy to peg nor is his latest album, Voyage easy to define. One thing is for sure though, Blue’s new MC Records release is not a hardcore blues album but rather a blend of blues influenced pop and R&B originals with a jazz sensibility at times. Many of the song lyrics are very personal, related to struggles and accomplishments in Sugar Blue’s life.
Meeting the Rolling Stones and playing harmonica on their hit, “Miss You” gave Sugar Blue an international reputation. He’s also played the blues with Willie Dixon, Louisiana Red and Johnny Shines and is a regular on the international blues festival circuit.
Voyage is his label debut for New York based MC Records who have also released albums by Cyril Neville and Anders Osborne among others. It’s Blue’s first album in five years and he co-wrote every song except for a cover of the Ray Charles song, “Mary Ann,” also covered decades ago by Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper on their Live Adventures album. Sugar Blue’s latest self-produced CD was recorded at Studio 2424 here in Chicago employing the talents of a number of local mainstays: longtime bandmate Rico McFarland, Johnny B. Gayden, Bill Dickens, Brady Williams, Michael Weatherspoon, Damino Della Torre, and Harry Hmura with a cameo by the legendary Eddie Shaw. Blue’s wife and band leader Ilaria Lantieri co-produced, plays bass and adds backing vocals. The album is dedicated to the memory of his longtime drummer James Knowles.
This musical Voyage begins
sweetly with a personal ballad, “On My Way (Sarah’s Song)”. It’s a
family affair, co-written by Blue with wife Ilaria. The lyrics are
addressed to his daughter. The band finds an easy War-like groove which
is a fine setting for a nice harp solo halfway through the song.
“One” follows and bumps up the funk with guitarist and co-writer Rico
McFarland helping out instrumentally. Lyrically it’s a page from the
Paul Simon songbook (“One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” from
There Goes Rhymin’ Simon)
with couplets that examine ironies of life. “One man’s pleasure is
another man’s pain.”
Both “One” and the next track, “Sugar Blue Boogie” will please those who love great blues inspired harmonica. The latter is a fast instrumental shuffle on which Blue really wails, referencing jazz as much as the blues. It’s one of Voyage’s most impressive moments musically.
In “New York City,” Blue returns to his home turf of Harlem with an unexpected shot of country blues which makes for a nice change of pace. This tribute to his NYC roots is somewhat reminiscent of John Sebastian at times as Blue recounts playing Greenwich Village clubs including encounters with Muddy Waters and Memphis Slim. He’s truly “a country boy from New York City” as unlikely as that might sound!
“12 Steps” is a pop-oriented but personal statement inspired by real events in Sugar Blue’s life. A hopeful look to the future, the title is a reference to Blue’s past struggles with substance abuse. It’s also a nice showcase for keyboardist Torre, who covers the keys throughout Voyage. Likewise, “Love is Everywhere” is a lyrical celebration of Blue’s current bliss as a husband and father.
“Mercedes Benz” and “Cyber Blues” are both songs that wouldn’t sound out
of place in Blue’s basic club set at Chicago blues spots like Rosa’s,
Kingston Mines or Buddy Guy’s Legends. The former evokes a familiar
image of pop success combined with romantic betrayal while the latter
decries the dilemma of being old school in an increasingly digital
world. “I got the cyber blues/about to blow a fuse” which also inspires
another especially great harp solo.
As the title implies, “Sunshine” returns to pop, a mellow love song co-written with local guitarist Harry Hmura while “Life On the Run” gets jazzier featuring guest vocalist Maya Azucena with a topical theme addressing our current issue of gun violence. The album ends with a reflection on “Time” -- we’re running out of it and how precious it is.
Sugar Blue’s Voyage is a personal journey that draws from a variety of musical genres. More blues influenced than pure blues, it’s a reflection of Blue’s life now. While hard times and desperation have fueled many of our most memorable blues songs, there’s certainly value in songs inspired by good times and positive lifestyle changes. Voyage is an album that just might grow on you with its message of hope inspired by Sugar Blue’s life.
For info or to buy: MC Records
For info or to buy: MC Records
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.