…It’s Not My Circus, Not My Monkey
The Hitman Blues Band has, in various guises, been around since 1989 and always fronted by Russell Alexander, the talented singer and guitarist with the slightly alarming nickname of ‘Hitman’…hence the band name. They have just released their (I think) seventh CD and have toured these shores to great acclaim in the past and their The World Moves On release was similarly feted. Various hardships have been endured, but Hitman was not to be denied and the call of the blues has, thankfully, resulted in the wonderfully titled Not My Circus, Not My Monkey.
[On a personal note, I must admit to being a bit confused at the press release when it called the band a “modern/alt. blues group”: confused at the increasingly used “alt” before the band’s chosen genre…to my (simple) mind it is either blues or it isn’t, it’s rock or it isn’t. As a reviewer, I do have to succumb to pigeonholing records to assist in clarifying which genre(s) of music the band in question reside in, but the “alt” thing just confounds…unless as a “writer” I class myself as alt. Shakespeare which I most certainly do not; but I do use a lot of his words!]
Rant over: let’s discuss the blues record in my hands which also calls on the non-alt. areas of rock, soul and R’n’B to great effect.
Opener, Not My Circus, is blues infused funk r’n’b with humorous, likeable lyrics…horns, Hammond, neat guitar (and a blissful slide solo) combine with a singable chorus to make an irresistible lead track: and anyone that rhymes “spunky’ with “monkey” is alright in my book (although that’s just my mind as it means something very different in the UK).
Buy That Man A Drink is next and is R’n’B with a shuffle and a coned horn intro that will have you searching the memory banks. Blind Willie Johnson’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine is given a reworking with revised lyrics and fascinating reading of the original structure: horn-filled but with a guitar solo that effortlessly pulls it all together backed up with an equally inspired electric piano solo both of which play with the main melodies in a clever way.
Following that, Russell performed a similar feat on another Blind Willie classic John The Revelator; I’ll let him explain:
” it has been done so many times. I was thinking what if John was sitting there in his cave writing the Book of Revelations and all the other gods just popped in and gave their own version of what the end of times is going to be like? So I wrote the lyrics like that. I had Buddha come by, and Odin, and Brahma. I like the way it came out”.
Does it work? Well, with so many other versions out there, this one does have the benefit of not being a simple translation…more a revelation(!) and made stronger by some brilliant keyboards and more lovely slide in a solo that ends too quickly.
A big change of pace with the piano-led ballad of No Place Like Home…soulful blues ready for a ‘lighters out’ session when touring starts again. Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing is next for the Hitman treatment; funky Dylan? Yes, and it does work as you soon forget the original as this is so different. The sax solo is OK but the real star is the bass (yes, bass) solo that I skip to regularly; it’s so rare you get one, and one so well played.
You Can’t Say No has a familiar sound until another sublime slide section that usurps the earlier sax solo and makes me wish it lasted a lot longer. Walk With You is 50s/60s R’n’B with a modern update and bounces along driven by the piano and tight drums and bass but we get another sax solo rather than guitar.
You Don’t Understand is a guitar-driven blues song that needed (in my biased opinion) a strong guitar solo, although the sax solo isn’t half bad. Back to the 50s/60s again with Everybody But Me; a ballad that uses well-worn tropes from that era…not unoriginal, just familiar until the lovely toned, picked guitar solo lifts it.
The final track Go Down Fighting (not the Nazareth one) is a blues-rock song over a standard structure but with the layers of horns and nice-sounding Hammond, it is very new. The guitar solo is the cherry on the top for my favourite cut.
In summary, this is a well written, impeccably performed album of (not alt) blues, soul rock and some very original cover versions.
Bluesdoodles rating: 4 Doodle Paws – A Wonderful album of varied blues with something for everyone within – great guitar solos (not enough), strong vocals and excellent backing from a powerful and accomplished band.
Tracklisting – composer Russell Alexander except where stated:
1. Not My Circus – R. Alexander, P. Gilmore
2. Buy That Man A Drink
3. Nobody’s Fault But Mine – Blind Willie Johnson
4. John The Revelator – Blind Willie Johnson
5. No Place Like Home
6. The Times They Are A-Changin’ – R. Dylan
7. You Can’t Say No
8. Walk With You
9. You Don’t Understand
10. Everybody But Me
11. Go Down Fighting
Russell “Hitman” Alexander – Guitars, vocals
Kevin Bents – Keyboards
Mike Porter – Bass, Backup Vocals
Guy LaFountaine – Drums
Mikey Vitale – Alto Sax
John Kelly – Tenor Sax
Eric Altarac – Trumpet
Nick Clifford – Bari Sax
Mike Katzman – Organ solo on “John The Revelator”
Joanna Alexander, Nancy Hampton – Backing Vocals
Adam Minkoff – Organ (“No Place Like Home”)
Bob Stander – Hand Claps, Tambourine
(iTunes brought some seriously heavy blues rock from 2013 by The Hoax and the weighty and quite lovely Hipslicker.)