With a form as venerable and yet malleable as the blues, it is the manner of expression as much aswhat
is expressed that carries a performer. Some may bristle at this idea, and say it places style above substance. But style, a personal sense of fashion, an idiosyncratic bearing... whatever you choose to call it, this quality is sometimes the real stuff of an artists' achievements. It is his style that allows us to distinguish Albert "The Iceman" Collins from any other electrified Texas bluesman after only a few notes, and it is a certain flair that, in part, raises Olu Dara from the ranks of any other accomplished instrumentalist who decides to moonlight as a singer.
Steve Freund clearly understands this facet of the blues persona, and he is not just comfortable with it his attitude is downright confident. On this, his second release for Delmark, his guitar solos may not startle with their sheer melodic inventiveness, but they each have a real snap to them. On his “Ramblin’ Blues” solo, Freund reiterates a single note for nearly an entire chorus, varying his pacing and the weight he assigns to the individual sounds, laying one note down and snatching it back up again a sleight-of-hand trick performed with a live wire. Then again, Freund certainly has a pedigree equal to nearly that of any other, more well-known bluesmen and not just as a shouter or a guitar-slinger, but as a complete artist of the idiom; check out the very contemporary woes chronicled in the funny but not so funny travelogue “A Dollar a Mile”, of his generation. His past associates include Sunnyland Slim, Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton, Big Walter Horton, and other Chicago luminaries. This musician has, as he says in his own notes for I’ll Be Your Mule, quite a resume of “dues well paid”.
Freund’s affection for the rich history of blues storytelling is reflected by a program with originals and personal favorites cherry-picked from the songbooks of figures such as Big Bill Broonzy and B. B. King. Again, though, he has cultivated his own approach out of his respect for tradition. His enunciation and subtle vibrato, even on the word “ain’t”, owes something to Jimmy Rushing. Freund cannot quite rival Mr. Five By Five for sheer sonic power or in the department of ringing tonal purity (who can?), but his tenor is similarly streaked with coolness. But where Rushing’s reserve was indicative of his classical training and desire to lend an oratorical grandeur to even the funkiest of tropes, the younger man's reserve is more of a soulfulness rubbed to a bright polish. And Freund never over-cooks a lyric here, or works himself up to a frustrated pitch of horniness his vocal on “Fine Lookin’ Woman” being a case in point.
Nonetheless, Freund has chosen to thicken up the texture of some of these tunes with occasional rhythm guitar, harmonica, and chugging, booting saxophones and brass. On the guitar showcase the leader shares with Dave Specter, “Fittin’ to Go”, the swinging momentum generated from piano, rhythm guitar and baritone sax is so hard that drummer Kenny Smith is free to play nutty little accents across his cymbals for the duration of the duel. That said, the presence of the horn section embellishes these performances to a degree that renders them more formulaic than they actually are, as on the opening title track. And Freund should certainly not want to smother the coarse-fine interplay of his guitar and Mark Braun's piano, heard to fine effect on a slow "Something to Remember You By," surely one of the most appealing aspects of this recording. More enjoyable, then, are I'll Be Your Mule 's scaled-back tracks, which feature the sound of a crack band of good buddies Freund, Braun, Smith, and either Bob Stroger or Harlan Terson (bass) kicking back. As the hours grow later and the drinks dwindle, they engage in some salty talk (“You Were a Good Old Ride”), spin some tall tales (“Ramblin’ Bill”, with the refrain’s vow to marry someday and settle down as the tallest declaration), and even let down their romantic guard in admiration of a good woman (“My Life is Changing”). These performances are both charming, deeply felt and anything but workman-like. They also balance nicely in the way they are programmed against the music made by the augmented groups.
Still, should the listener need any further proof that Freund knows just where he has been and where he is going, they should skip straight to the themeless “Bill Reed’s Blues". Over tricky changes from Braun’s stately, stride-hinting piano, Freund plays clean-picked, seemingly unamplified notes, only to give way to Clark Dean’s Sidney Bechet-inspired soprano sax. The transformation of the piece is unexpected and highly effective, evocative without resorting to the cheap effects of revivalism. Not so easy to pull off, and certainly not easy to deliver with the hip exuberance Freund manages here.
I'll be Your Mule / Fine Lookin' Woman / Hung Down Head / Fittin' to Go / You Were a Good Old Ride / Big Blue Mama / A Dollar a Mile / My Life Is Changing / When I Was Young / Something to Remember You By / Ramblin' Bill / Bill Reed's Blues / Rambler's Blues
Steve Freund (vocals, guitar); Mark "Mr. B." Braun (piano); Kenny Smith (drums); Bob Stroger, Harlan Terson (bass); Steve Guyger (harmonica on 6, 7, 13); Dave Specter (second lead guitar on 4, 5); Pete Crawford (rhythm guitar on 6, 7); Clark Dean (soprano sax on 12); Van Kelly (alto sax on 1, 2); Dave Clark (tenor sax on 1, 2, 3); Ed Enright (baritone sax on 1, 2, 4); Brian Schwab (trumpet on 3); Steve Horne (trombone on 3)