Involved in music for many years and once the guitarist in Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Billy Walton and his band, err, The Billy Walton Band, are back with their sixth album, Soul of a Man. Although New Jersey born and bred, Walton and the band have probably had more success in Europe, and numerous tours have built up a devoted following in the UK too. In fact, he was a finalist in the “Best Overseas Artist” section of the 2016 British Blues Awards.
Although difficult to categorise, I would class their sound as a blues, rock, soul, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll melange, and they have continued to refine their mixed-genre approach into a surprisingly accessible whole on this album. Some compare him to that other NY graduate, Springsteen, but as I subscribe to the Ritchie Blackmore view of the said person, I have to disagree. The band brings a more varied, cohesive and original sound to their output.
Save the Last Dance kicks off the album with a characteristic soulful blues slant and immediately alerts the uninitiated into the guitar prowess of Walton and how, despite the numerous instruments around him, he and his guitar are at the forefront. For me, that is an essential distinction as his playing on the whole album ensures that it does not disappear down a New York dead end street. It starts with a guitar-led, horn-backed, and bouncy intro before Walton’s warm vocals invite you to dance. The keys and drums are also significant in making a good opening number. I Don’t know has a New Orleans jazz horn intro and then transforms into a 50’s, almost jive style song with the guitar punctuating the verses. Hell ‘n’ High Water is a standout track for me, with its blues-rock grounding and the added horn section fills out the sound guitar phrasing to keep it firmly in the blues. Something Better moves back into the soul biased sound and, again, the understated organ gives this the necessary depth (pun intended). My Little Bird takes the tempo down into a smooth ballad. The many instruments are, sensibly, background to the vocal and a fascinating guitar sound and solo. Let It go is a lively soul infused rocker. Walton also uses that ubiquitous and oft misused instrument, the talk box on the guitar. Fortunately, unlike many who try to use it to ‘speak’, he uses it to simply expand the notes and it does work, particularly during the solo. It A’int True employs a Stax like the template and, although it moves along at a decent lick, it is the weakest track and feels like you’ve heard it before. Shine the Light has a rock bias and is stronger for it and shows where this band is most fluent. The guitar has a real edge throughout, and with the rhythm section as tight as a duck’s bum, it is an instant favourite. The John Fogarty composition for Creedence Clearwater Revival, Green River, is up next. It first appeared on their album of the same name in1969 and was actually named after a lime flavoured, ice drink (a Slush Puppy, if you remember them!). Here it remains true to the original in structure, but with the horns bringing an unexpected, but not a spoiling, tone to a great song. Another inspired solo from Walton and one from the keyboards improves it too. Poison Pill drops the tempo again with keys and horns to the fore. A cleverly understated and inventive guitar solo rescues the track from falling into the blandness it threatens at times. Minglewood was written by Noah Lewis of Cannon’s Jug Stompers and first recorded in 1928 as Minglewood Blues. (This jug band is probably is best known for the Gus Cannon song, Walk Right In, covered many times since). Initially, it would seem to be anything but a jug band song, as the lovely guitar intro reflects the banjo playing from the original. Instead, it becomes a tasteful and solid blues song, with yet another very good guitar solo. Can’t Keep a Good Man Down is another ‘where have I heard that moment’ and, although there are numerous songs by the same name, it’s not one of them; it just has that feel to it. Not a bad song, but not a standout. However, the closing track, Days Like These, most certainly is as it opens with nice harp playing by Jack Gist and Walton on acoustic guitar for the first time. This gives a true rootsy blues feel which makes me think another of this style and standard would have given a more distinctive and rounded feel to the whole album. The acoustic playing, with an oh, so subtle slide now and again is really very, very good.
In summary, then, this is an album with some massive highs tempered by a couple of, if only…moments. The musicianship is exemplary, however, and it is definitely an album that repays a few listens: only then do you fully appreciate the complexity and skill that the best songs contain. So, forget any comparisons you may read about, just enjoy a diverse and illuminating album.
SEVENdoodle paws out of TEN …
- Save the Last Dance
- I Don’t Know
- Hell ‘n’ High Water
- Something Better
- My Little Bird
- Let Go
- It Ain’t True
- Shine the Light
- Green River
- Poison Pill
- Can’t Keep a Good Man Down
- Days Like These
The core band is Billy Walton on guitar and vocals, William Paris on bass and vocals and Johnny D’Angelo on drums with Sam Sherman and Eric Safka on keyboards, with Jack Gist on harmonica.
The seemingly fluid horn section includes Matt Fischer, Ian Gray and Frank Rein on trombone, Rick Rein on trumpet and Sean Marks, Jon Shaw, Joey Stann, Greg Wilson and Tom Petraccaro on saxes.
Recorded at Aala Recording in Maui, Hawaii, Cambridge Sound in Philadelphia and Organic Sounds in Long Beach.