Release date: March 4, 2021
By Glenn Noble
Photo: Jennifer Noble
Song of a man who has come through – DH Lawrence
With this release, Curtis Salgado ends a four year hiatus from the studio, and fans can look forward to hearing a baker’s dozen tracks on this Alligator recording, Damage Control. The name of the album (and also the title track) sets something of a theme for this collection, as several of the songs look back on the rough and tumble of life lived hard, after reaching a place of resolution and redemption. There appears to be a good deal of personal experience shared in this work that lends authenticity and integrity to the collection – satisfying attributes all too often missing in music today.
Singer, harmonica player and prolific songwriter, Curtis needs little introduction to fans of soulful blues. His musical career spans over 40 years, first with the Nighthawks and with Robert Cray, and later with Roomful of Blues and as front man for the splendidly-named Curtis Salgado and the Stilettos, while now releasing under his own name. The quality of Curtis’s catalogue is attested to by the numerous honours he has gained, boasting Blues Music Awards in three different categories. The life of a blues performer sees ups and downs and not surprisingly Curtis has had his share – from inspiring the well-loved character of “Joliet Jake” Blues to suffering multiple serious illnesses. These highs and lows, crises and subsequent recoveries, all have served to provide Curtis with a deep well to draw from that informs his music both thematically and stylistically. They say you have to have lived the blues to sing the blues, and never truer than in this instance. Soaring one minute, sobbing the next; gritty and cynical or joyful and loving, Curtis’s expressive voice paints the highlights of the emotional tone for each song, brilliantly enhancing his smart, coherent lyrics.
The album was recorded at three different studios. Four tracks each were laid down at guitarist Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios in California and featuring the Scandinavian wizard on guitar; four again in California at Ultratone, Studio City, recorded by and featuring guitarist/bassist Johnny Lee Schell. The remaining five tracks were recorded at Rock House Recording in Nashville by keyboardist Kevin McKendree. The three separate groups of highly respected collaborators at each studio provided their own distinctive canvasses for Curtis to project his stories upon.
From the opening track “The Longer That I Live“, with its Gospel-tinged piano and organ introduction we get a taste of one of the themes that will appear several times through the album. Recorded at Greaseland, it’s a rueful yet lively and life-affirming reflection that despite getting on in years the taste for life is stronger than ever - “the older I want to get”. “What Did Me In Did Me Well” follows, a gently funky rhythm beneath Curtis’s hoarse, breaking vocals and sweet harp, telling a redemptive story of love lost and regained. An extended coda allows some space to hear Kid Andersen’s restrained and tasteful guitar work.
The first track from the Nashville sessions changes the tone: “You’re Gonna Miss My Sorry Ass” is a bouncy piano-led boogie relating the picaresque tale of a bad boy father and son pair, shamelessly revelling in their wild life. Curtis is singing this with an audible grin and having a good time! Second cut from Nashville is “Precious Time”. This is an easy-paced ballad underscored by long, lazy slide guitar lines and vocal harmonies. Relating a love story as two people meet after drifting through the world, it’s a grand scale, wide-sky tune, and beautifully produced.
Shifting over to the Ultratone studio and line-up for the next couple of cuts allows another group’s flavour to come through. In the format of a good old-fashioned old rock’n’roll romance number, Curtis gives the object of his affection a “Count of Three” to be in or out. Changing gear after the preceding playful number, Curtis takes us deep on the emotional ballad “Always Say I Love You (At The End Of Your Goodbyes).” He reminisces on the souvenirs of friends now sadly since passed, filled with regret for things that went unsaid -- and so, Curtis won’t be missing chances any more to speak what’s in his heart. Neither should we! It’s heartfelt, uplifting, and some soulful organ and keys make this track a stand out.
The album moves on with a trio of lighter cuts as first we “Hail, Mighty Caesar”! Rock’n’roll is king in this quirky and cheerful telling of the story of history’s greatest eternal triangle --Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and Cleopatra! With the Greaseland band in full cry it’s simply just a fun track. Then it’s back to Nashville with a steady-driving rocker that recalls the “things I used to do” titled “I Don’t Do That No More.” “Had fun with it / Now I’m done with it” says Curtis in a survivor’s ode to sobriety; fortunately he has found a better way with the love of a good woman. Such a joyful and uplifting song! The next track in this lighter mode is the unusual “Oh for the Cry Eye” which vividly suggests the style of a number from a stage musical with the protagonist and chorus recalling the life advice given by their Mama, who also makes an appearance.
A cascading piano draws us into an easy loping beat as Curtis ruefully drawls a downbeat but heartfelt prayer for tranquillity as he leads into the title track “Damage Control.” Curtis sees us as poor souls just trying to make our way as best we can through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. With the “guy upstairs asleep” at the controls, the best we can do is limit the damage and get through ‘til tomorrow. The core of this song, and the essence of the album, is an ultimately hopeful message of the survival and resilience.
We go back to Nashville once more for an upbeat love song,“Truth Be Told,” in which Curtis finds “a love as good as gold.” Wayne Toups joins Curtis on vocals and plays squeeze box to provide a lively Cajun-flavoured kick to this joyful little tune.
With “The Fix Is In” Curtis gives us the story straight from the hip -- watch your back people...can’t trust nobody these days. A lowdown funky bassline punctuated with wailing harp pitches an ominous threatening groove; the gruff, beat-up vocals perfectly complement the downbeat message as Curtis calls out the grift and the graft in society today. It’s a great, gritty track that’s telling some hard truths. To wrap up the set, the final track on the album, “Slow Down,” gives us a lively cover of Larry Williams’ rousing rock ’n roll classic -- complete with a growling baritone sax by Tim Bryson and rockin’ guitar by frequent accompanist Alan Hager -- to provide a lively finish. (Interesting to compare this with Paul Weller’s version with The Jam from 1977, although the version by that other band from Liverpool might be better known).
After repeated listening to the whole set, a number of impressions abide. One is the personal nature of the songs. It feels strongly that Curtis is recounting episodes and occurrences from his own experience which powerfully imbues them with undeniable truth and honesty. This underlies and makes more credible the second impression, which is Curtis’s message that, despite bad choices, adversity and misfortune in life, there is at least survival and hope of recovery, leading ultimately to redemption and love. It’s also worth noting that along with the deep and serious messages, it’s important to make time to look for some joy in living. I’m certain that listeners to this album will find it an emotionally honest, uplifting, and musically satisfying experience. In the poet Keats’ words:
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
Curtis Salgado’s Damage Control is a truthful and beautiful recording and it deserves to be a great success.
About the Author: Glenn Noble is Chicago Blues Guide’s London correspondent who is married to CBG photographer Jennifer Noble. Glenn is a multi-instrumentalist and plays around town in several bands.