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The Playin's The Thing

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Though much proverbial water has since flowed under this bridge, with 'Rural Renewal' the Crusaders get back to where they once belonged, straight to the heart of their joyous juke joint roots.
The Great Bard knew that sometimes, even more important than the final story, traveling the journey is just as essential to the tale. It’s often not just the song, but it’s the playing, that’s the thing.


The Crusaders: Rural Renewal (PRA / Verve)
It’s been more than twenty years since founding members Joe Sample (keyboards), Stix Hooper (drums), and Wilton Felder (saxophones) recorded together as the Crusaders. Though much proverbial water has since flowed under their bridge, with Rural Renewal the Crusaders get back to where they once belonged, straight to the heart of their joyous juke joint roots.

The first two cuts feature Eric Clapton, first on acoustic and then on electric guitar. The acoustic track is mostly a non-event, but his electric blues guitar seems to rejoice in the freedom of Sample’s loose-limbed “Creepin’.” Easily his most ambitious new composition, “Heartland” may also be a new Sample classic, throbbing with turbulent rhythmic undertow while Felder swims out of the blue groove into Wayne Shorter’s more sharp harmonic and rhythmic waters.

Most of the rest, such as Sample’s “Shotgun House Groove” and Hooper’s “Greasy Spoon,” are more groovy workouts than tight constructions, with Sample’s barrelhouse boogie-woogie in “Greasy Spoon” the instrumental rule rather than the exception; Felder brandishes a rough and ready approach here like a true “Texas tenor.” They glide through their grooves, bumped along by the horns’ melodic counterpoint. Unaccredited vibraphone makes this stroll through “Lazy Sundays” sound even jauntier.

Smooth, supple Stix Hooper may be the best drummer you’ll never notice, as he and fatback bassist Freddie Washington set the table for every one of these greasy spoon grooves. Sometimes their portions seem a little smaller and a little less spicy than they used to, but this Crusaders’ menu remains tasty and satisfying.


Roomful of Blues: That’s Right! (Alligator)
40 band alumnae, 35 years, 16 albums, four Grammy Award nominations, and two W.C. Handy Awards since the group was founded by keyboardist Al Copley and guitarist Duke Robillard, Roomful of Blues’s resume includes Joe Turner, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and was once called “the hottest blues band I’ve ever heard” after a gig supporting no less an authority than Count Basie. That’s Right! debuts a new Roomful band on a new label, modern blues bastion Alligator Records. Now an octet led by guitarist Chris Vachon with a new lead singer, bassist, drummer, keyboard player, and saxophonist joining holdovers Vachon, trumpeter Bob Enos and saxophonist Rich Lataille, That’s Right! revisits Roomful’s legacy as an institution of American roots music, specifically the joint-rockin’ sound of jump blues.

Just like the group personnel, this new album blends new and old material together into a mixed bag of straight blues, jump blues, hard swing, and rock & roll. ROB bounces through lots of up-tempo material: T-Bone Walker (“I Know Your Wig Is Gone”), Little Milton (“I’m Tryin’”), and Elmore James (“Stranger Blues”), plus songs popularized by Turner (“Lipstick, Powder and Paint”) and Big Maybelle (“Ocean of Tears”).

Close your eyes and crank it up, and you’ll swear you’re crammed in a hot and steamy club. “Wig” shakes, rattles and rolls true to the earthy yet gentlemanly spirit of Walker, one of the true founding blues forefathers. They downshift into slow-rolling blues just twice and each time Vachon’s guitar ignites blazes, almost overpowering the entire ensemble, burning like Albert King in “How Long Will It Last?” and like Albert Collins in “I Just Got To Know.”


Garaj Mahal: Live Volume 1 (San Francisco, CA) ; Live Volume 2 (Chicago, IL) ; Live Volume 3 (Boulder, CO) (Harmonized)
Individually and in combinations, the members of Garaj Mahal – Eric Levy (keyboards), Alan Hertz (drums), Kai Eckhardt (bass) and Fareed Haque (guitar) – have accompanied Dizzy Gillespie, Stanley Clarke, Al DiMeola, Steve Smith’s Vital Information, and the John McLaughlin Trio. These three simultaneous (individually packaged) live sets fish with hip young bait in the hopes of making a big splash in the same free-flowing, neo-hippie college radio jam band waters in which such bands as Phish and Widespread Panic spawned. Consisting almost entirely of fusion-y instrumental jams, these Live sets will appeal to fans of Brand X and Return to Forever, too.


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