Release date: Friday, March 13, 2020
13 Tracks / 44:27 By Mark Thompson
It has been almost seven years since the last Roomful Of Blues album, Live, hit the market. During that span, long-time members trumpeter Doug Woolverton and saxophonist Mark Early moved on, now part of The Train, Victor Wainwright's fine band. Filling their slots are Carl Gerhard on trumpet and Alek Razdan on tenor and baritone sax. A member of the band since it started over fifty years ago, Rich Lataille is still aboard on tenor and alto sax. Guitarist Chris Vachon, now celebrating thirty years with the band including twenty-plus years as the leader, produced the album and had a hand in writing eight songs. Other returning members include Phil Pemberton on vocals, John Turner on upright bass, and Rusty Scott on keyboards. Chris Anzalone takes over on drums.
One thing that has never varied over the decades is the sound — the horn-driven arrangements that are hallmark of the band's enduring popularity, not to mention stellar guitar work from players like Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl, and Vachon. Out front has been a succession of notable singers including Lou Ann Barton, Sugar Ray Norcia, and Curtis Salgado. Pemberton quickly reminds listeners that he has a voice to be reckoned with on the opener, “What Can I Do,” sparked by Scott's pumping piano over the horn section, with a pause for a lusty tenor sax break. He is equally at home on a cover of Doc Pomus's “Too Much Boogie,” a swinging number that gives several of the horns players an opportunity to shine. The other cover, “Have You Heard,” has the band taking a detour to Louisiana, with Dick Reed on accordion adding a dash of zydeco flavoring.
Of the originals, “Phone Zombies” is a humorous, but sobering, lament about our penchant for handheld devices. Vachon adds some taut licks over a steady-rolling groove, while Scott's embellishments on the organ add a subtle touch. Vachon wrote the title track, with Pemberton crying out, “Just about lost our minds...Well, let's get up and boogaloo, out of this roomful of blues”. Vachon answers with some nuanced guitar interludes. Bob Moulton, who co-wrote five songs with Vachon, plays guitar and does the backing vocal on “Watch Your Back,” a tune with a tough disposition, warning us to keep a close eye on the world around us.
Scott's songwriting contribution, “She's Too Much,” would have been right at home in the movie Swingers, a rousing number with a big beat that is a sure-fire way to pack the dance floor. Another Moulton-Vachon collaboration, “She Quit Me Again,” is a late-night weeper, with Pemberton spinning a web of pain and betrayal. The anguish is even more pronounced on “Carcinoma Blues,” a harrowing slow blues journey through the battle against cancer. “You Move Me” has a brisk, soulful strut with superbly executed horn lines. Vachon's “We'd Have A Love Sublime” is a full-bore rocker with generic lyrics while “Let The Sleeping Dog Lie” showcases some beautifully crafted interplay between Vachon and the horn section. The disc closes with a brief, spirited run-through of a Razdan original, “I Can't Wait”. All of the band's strengths are on display – a swinging tempo, Pemberton's smooth vocal, bold horn accents, topped with a muscular tenor sax solo.
It may have been a long wait, but Roomful of Blues is back, sounding as good as ever. There aren't many bands around that feature a killer horn section, and even fewer that are equally accomplished in all of the other meaningful areas. With their sixth release on Alligator, Roomful of Blues serves notice that they are still one of the best bands in the business. Let the houserockin' commence!
For info or to buy the music: www.alligator.com
About the Author: Mark Thompson lives in Bradenton, Florida and is the past president of the Suncoast Blues Society. A former Chicago area native, he also acted as the president of Rockford/Byron's Crossroads Blues Society. Thompson writes for many blues publications and served on the Board for the Blues Foundation in Memphis, which hosts the annual Blues Music Awards and International Blues Challenge events.