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Chris O'Leary - The Hard Line

Release date: Jan. 12, 2024

Alligator Records
By Steve Jones

Photo: Paul Natkin

Last summer when upstate New Yorker Chris O’Leary was touring through our area he let me in on the “secret” that he’d signed with Bruce Iglauer and Alligator Records and I could not have been happier for Chris. He is an amazing talent, both vocally and on harmonica. He writes evocative songs about life and his experiences. Now that the album has been delivered, it turned out even better than anyone could have hoped. This is by far O’Leary’s best effort. Great songs, top-notch vocals, outstanding harp and just a superb overall sound!

 The bandmates here are plentiful. Chris Vitarelli is on guitar for almost all tracks. Guitar great Monster Mike Welch is on “I Cry At Night” and Greg Gumpel adds guitar and slide to four tracks. Keyboards are shared between Jessie O’Brien, Brooks Milgate, and Jeremy Baum. Andy Huenenberg is on bass, except for a track with Matt Raymond. Producer Dan Vitarello plays drums on five tracks, drummer Michael Bram adds his on five more and percussion on four cuts. Andrei Koribanics and Ray Hangen are on the other two tracks. Horns are provided by Andy Stahl (tenor sax), Ron Knittle (baritone sax), Darren Sterud (trombone), Nick Bartell (various saxophones), and Chris DiFrancesco (baritone sax). Backing vocalists are Libby Cabello and Willa Vincitore.


The album opens with a bold and greasy harp intro that gets the listener prepared for an amazing album. Vitarellos’s guitar sings and O’Leary delivers an outstanding performance vocally. Piano and sax support the sound, and by the end of the first song I was sold. O’Leary and company jump and swing on the next cut, “Lost My Mind.” Barrelhouse piano licks and a driving beat make this one fun. Harp and guitar solos are outstanding here, too. The heat and tempo then get turned down in “Ain’t That A Crime,” where O’Leary sings with grit and feeling as he lays out some more deep blues on harp. Cool stuff!


“My Fault” has some slick blues shouting and a great feel to it as he and the band set a deliberate pace and deliver an excellent cut. O’Leary sings with passion and the band gives us another fine performance in support. Welch plays some fantastic guitar on “I Cry At Night,” a slow blues where Chris sings with feeling and the organ and piano help to set the tone for this impassioned track. The guitar solos are exemplary and Chris, Mike and the others give their all. “Things Ain’t Always What They Seem” is next, another jumping cut with a vibrant groove and swinging sound. O’Leary delivers another fine vocal performance as the band helps drive the song along at breakneck speed.  It’s fun stuff and gets your blood pumping!


Chris takes us to a darker place as he sings “Lay This Burden Down,” a cut with deep emotions. The guitar helps set the feeling as Vitarello’s solo provides the same passion as O’Leary’s vocals. This is somber, dark and emotive stuff. Things then shift into high gear for the bouncing and romping sounds of “Need For Speed.” Honky-tonk piano and a driving beat along with delightful harp and frantically cool vocals are the order of the day with this song. “You Break It, You Bought It” is up next, a midtempo piece that tells a story of a broken relationship due to infidelity.  O’Leary again sings with deep feeling and the piano and guitar help set the mood. Chris also lays out a visceral harp solo for us to savor here.


The next cut tells a true story of their van being broken into. “Who Robs A Musician” tells us the woes of life on the road and getting ripped off as O’Leary moans, “Stealing from the poor is wrong.” Guitar and harp give their versions of the sad story in their solos. A big NOLA sound is featured in “Funky Little Club on Decatur” as trombone, and the other horns give super performances. O’Leary sings his heart out on this one. We even get an interesting guitar solo that weaves nicely into the horns and overall feel of the cut. The final track is “Love’s for Sale,” a hot and rocking tune that goes 100 miles an hour as O’Leary and company kick things into high speed. The band is burning as they take no prisoners and leave the listener exhausted with this one. A final, ringing guitar solo, a whirlwind of harp soloing, and the piano keys seem on fire, making you breathless. The band takes you on a ride that makes you feel the need to hang on!


The pandemic gave O’Leary time to craft his best music ever. The songs here are spectacular. The emotions range from a Marine taking the next hill to some soft and tender stuff. It’s an emotional roller coaster of music that tears at your heart on some cuts and drives you to passion and dancing on others. While this was recorded over a period of time with several sets of musicians, it doesn't feel like that when you sit and listen to the album. It’s a cohesive and fantastic set of original tunes that flow and ebb and give the listener their money’s worth and then some. This album sets the bar for the next set of music awards. Few, if any, will compare. This is an utterly amazing set of tunes and is a must for all blues fans’ music collections. You must go get this album now!


About the Author: Steve Jones is the long-standing president of the award-winning Crossroads Blues Society of Byron/Rockford, IL.


To buy/hear the music, visit:

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