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CD REVIEW -- Mark Robinson

MARK ROBINSON

Have Axe – Will Groove

Blind Chihuahua Records 

Mark Robinson CD

By Liz Mandeville

Mark Robinson’s guitar playing complimented many Chicago blues greats when he worked as a side man to a veritable “who’s who” of Chicago legends in the ‘80s. His tight, rock-inflected string work was the perfect foil to the funk and Fifties tradition that typified the Chicago sound at that time.

Moving to Nashville, Mark continued to earn his stripes on that formidable scene for the next two decades. Paying dues as a guitar side man, quietly biding his time, he worked on his writing and vocal skills. The payoff was his 2010 debut solo release, Quit Your Job, Play Guitar. Here Mark demonstrated able singing chops, sinuous fretwork and an ability to write great, driving guitar blues.

2012’s follow up CD, Have Axe-Will Groove is the next logical progression from a mature, delightfully seasoned performer. A side man no more, Mark steps boldly to the plate and hits another homer with this fine CD -- eleven songs that touch all the bases. Having written all but three of the songs on Have Axe, Mark’s writing, playing and singing are as satisfying as a good meal and his choice of cover tunes makes a nice aperitif for this sophomore effort.

The music shoots right out of the starting gate with the opening track “Drive Real Fast” in which a Rev. Billy Gibbons/ Z.Z. Top type guitar part is accompanied by a moaning blues harp. Mark proclaims “Throw my cell phone out the window! Don’t want to talk to nobody no more. I wanna drive real fast!” This is great roadhouse blues and sets the mood for a disc that’s ready to move. The second tune, “Baby’s Gone to Memphis,” continues this driving, rocking groove but adds some sweet vocal harmonies on the chorus, compliments of Vicki Carrico and Jonell Mosser. The song’s protagonist tells us his baby’s gone to see the King and will be hanging out with him at the Peabody Hotel. Well, if a blues man’s got to lose his lady it’s best to lose her to the King and turn that heartbreak into a smoking highway song!

The third track, “Angel of Mercy,” is a slower tune, with Michael Webb giving it a nice gospel feel on the Hammond organ with a gently flowing solo and the angels singing beautiful backup vocals. Robinson’s vocal is emotional without the least touch of melodrama or self pity as he begs the angel of mercy to carry him home. In fact all his vocals are fresh, without artifice and delivered straight from the heart.

Track four, “Cool Rockin’ Daddy,” swings, displaying Mark’s formidable guitar chops without putting them in your face. One of my instant faves on the disc, the song is made even stronger by Ben Graves’ alto sax adding the perfect punctuation to Mark’s unhurried vocal and macho lyric.

We’re driving hard on “Broke Down,” featuring slide guitar and an insistent tom heavy drum part carrying the clean harp solo, cool vocal and simple message. “Pull My Coat” could easily fit on an Eric Clapton CD. It’s some great Chicago blues, reinvented and laid down by a seasoned, unhurried journeyman. I love the Texas shuffle turning the beat around as Mark begs ‘Won’t you please explain? What am I supposed to do?’ before showing us he knows exactly what to do with a groove this tough.

“Lifetime Prescription” paints a dark picture of the blues man’s life: “love those painted women with their cigarettes and gin, I’ve got a lifetime prescription for the blues.” The visual appeal of this beautifully crafted ballad is perfectly complemented by a guitar that makes no excuses for the life he’s chosen. Tom Waits couldn’t have said it better.

“Rhythm Doctor” takes us down to New Orleans with a snappy second line beat that casts my musical mind back in time to the hey-day of Little Feat -- all this tune needs is a plate of grilled oysters a bowl of red beans and rice. Mark must’ve been channeling the late great Lowell George when he stewed up this greasy melody. Beads for everybody, bon temps!

“What’s The Matter Baby” takes us back to the West Side of Chicago with a groove that tips its hat to “Snatch It Back and Hold It.” The protagonist of this song is having some woman problems he just doesn’t understand! “What’s the matter baby? What’s the matter now? Every time I try and please you, I make you mad somehow!” With a harp solo by Roguie Ray LaMontagne that would’ve made Junior Wells tap his feet, this number shimmies and shakes itself right into your ear and stays there.

With the Doc Pomus tune, “Lonely Avenue,” (famously covered by Ray Charles and Van Morrison) a crying guitar and a big lush bed of Hammond organ surround the tragic lyric. Mark puts as much pathos into his soulful vocal as he does in his reverb heavy guitar solo. Blending the crying rock guitar with just the right amount of Memphis soul, he takes this tune to a new level of blue with shades of Little Milton coloring his vocal.

The disc wraps with Robinson’s composition, the haunting “Blue Moon Howl.” The moody one-chord groove makes me shiver with a feel of lonesome bayou, zombie shout chorus and echoing, swampy guitar. He sings “the devil’s voice is calling…” and you believe him. Look out Robert Johnson; Mark Robinson’s been to the crossroads and he ain’t coming back. Buy this record and play it ‘til it’s done wore out.

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