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CD REVIEW -- Billy Branch & Sons of The Blues
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BILLY BRANCH & SONS OF THE BLUES

Blues Shock

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By Bill Dahl

          Long established as Chicago’s top blues harmonica man, Billy Branch can effortlessly segue from vintage Little Walter to thoroughly up-to-the-minute funky blues without dropping a beat.  He displays several sides of his musical personality on Blues Shock, backed by his skin-tight band, the Sons of Blues. Drummer Moses Rutues, Jr. and bassist Nick Charles have been with Branch in the SOBs just this side of forever, developing some serious musical ESP along the way; guitarist Dan Carelli, the newest member of the band, fits right in as he inserts tasty, subtle licks that never intrude.

 

          Wearing his producer’s hat as well, Branch isn’t afraid to step outside the box. The title track, which manages to wittily name-check most of the Windy City’s leading blues joints, and “Baby Let Me Butter Your Corn” (both Branch originals) escort the proceedings in a decidedly uptown direction, buttressing the SOBs with the sizzling Chicago Horns (led by veteran trombonist Bill McFarland) and a trio of female backing vocalists. The opening “Sons Of Blues” is a sly introductory theme, the horns again blasting over a percolating funk-laden groove, while revisiting Motown belter Shorty Long’s 1966 soul workout “Function At The Junction” turns out to be an inspired idea.

 

          Yet there’s plenty here for traditional Chicago blues fans to savor, where the horns and chorines disappear and Branch digs into decidedly more traditional fare. A revival of Little Walter’s swinging “Crazy Mixed Up World,” written by Billy’s late mentor Willie Dixon, finds him engaging in dazzling chromatic harp runs that beautifully complement his gravelly vocal delivery. Guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks stops by to share vocal honors on the engaging “Dog House,” while sure-handed SOBs pianist Sumito Ariyoshi (local blues patrons know him better as Ariyo) penned the rumbling “Back Alley Cat.” Branch conceived the lowdown “Slow Moe” for Rutues to sing, and Moses adopts it as a personal calling card. John Lee Hooker’s often-revisited “Boom Boom” benefits from a shot of energy from everyone concerned. 

The innovative harpist leaves the 12-bar structure behind altogether for the touching, jazz-tinged ballad “Going To See Miss Gerri One More Time,” which tells the fascinating story of Gerri Oliver and her Palm Tavern on East 47th Street, a Bronzeville nightlife landmark for decades until our city fathers, in their less than infinite wisdom, evicted Miss Gerri and padlocked the place in 2001. Just as elegant and even jazzier is the set’s closing theme “Song For My Mother.”

 

Unwilling to limit himself to tried-and-true harp chestnuts, Billy Branch pushes the envelope just enough to keep this set fresh and bracing while retaining the bedrock blues attack that’s rendered him one of Chicago’s favorite club draws for decades. It’s been too long since he released a new album, but it was worth the wait.

Bill Dahl has been writing about blues, postwar R&B, and soul music for 35 years. He specializes in producing, compiling, and annotating CD reissue collections and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines. His website, www.billdahl.com, contains features and reviews covering a wide range of vintage music genres.  

 

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