When a blues guitarist achieves an accolade from none other than Joe Bonamassa who said of him, “Kirk is hands-down one of the best blues guitarists in the world” then you know you have to pay attention. The Kirk in question is Kirk Fletcher who has a history of working with many stars of the blues firmament: Bonamassa, Al Blake, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Doyle Bramhall to name a few and, for three years, he was lead guitarist for The Fabulous Thunderbirds. He took up the guitar at the age of eight, playing with his brother in their father’s church. It was Blake who was ultimately responsible for Kirk’s blues infusion as he introduced him to the blues of the early 20th century. His latest album, Hold On, is his fifth as a solo artist and embraces true blues, R’n’B, soul, rock and the occasional flourish of jazz. The band is a trio of guitar, organ and drums. Between Kirk and keysman Jonny Henderson, the rhythm is tight as a duck’s backside and more than ably reinforced by Matt Brown’s telepathic drumming.
It all starts with the funk-infused blues of Two Steps forward and, with renowned vocalist Mahalia Barnes trading verses with Fletcher, a delicate guitar backing and Jon Lord style B3 it comes together deliciously. His vocal on this has inflexions that remind me of Gregg Allman and is strong and pitched perfectly. Ms Barnes injects, unsurprisingly, some emotion-drenched soul over a great guitar backing. The solos are delightful and there are definite nods to a few guitar greats in their construction and execution…love it! You Need Me is next and takes a more soulful turn with Kirk’s vocal calling up thoughts of Bill Withers while the keys are simply superb. The guitar is very lyrical in both the solo (which has guitars overdubbed and playing off one another) and the carefully crafted backing. Sad Sad Day is New Orleans in feel with a great drum intro and the guitar riffing off them before the oh so apt tinkling piano. The guitar solo is, once again, sheer brilliance in its pace and tone. Next up is the eight-minute slow blues of The Answer; a song with such depth, melody and a guitar that sings as effectively as any voice…although Kirk does a damn good job with a lamenting lilt that conveys the emotions of the lyrics as he seeks the answer to some important questions. The solo is stunning in the way it flays you (in a good way) with all of the emotions inherent in the lyrics. The Hammond paints the background with mellifluous chords that support the guitar in exactly the right way. Time’s Ticking changes the pace slightly as, after, a heavy blues chord intro, it moves into a slow drum led march with that Hammond backing again providing a canvas that the guitar covers in colour. The solo is…guess what? Yes, I am using that adjective again… stunning is the only word that fits as Kirk utilises every method in the book as he travels the fretboard (hammers, runs, chords, sustain; it’s all there and performed brilliantly). An instrumental track, Dupree, is Kirk’s tribute to another guitarist of note, the late and lamented Cornell Luther Dupree. (He was a Texan who featured on over 2,000 sessions with nearly every name in the blues and soul book). The guitar proves as much a voice as is needed on this fun and technically superb piece. We also get a very high-quality Hammond solo over a clever, complex drum pattern moving into funky electric piano with subtle guitar to the fade.
A Chicago style shuffle takes us into Gotta Right, as in “I gotta right to sing the blues”. And on the strength of this he most certainly has…the drums and keys provide the shuffle’s backbone until the guitar cuts in with an equal claim to sing the blues. The solo contains some great use of sustain and again proves that a single note can say so much. We also get thrills, trills and runs and it all comes together as…no not stunning; dazzling will cover it! The album closes (too soon) with the gospel-tinged blues of the title track, Hold On. Aided by the impressive Jade McCrae on vocals and the wash of sound provided by the guitar and Hammond, this is fairly low-key way to end a remarkable album. Still, its soulful interpretation carries a hopeful message and does bring a different dimension to the blues tableau delivered by Kirk via yet another high-quality solo, and the backing of the drum and keys genius that Henderson and Brown bring to this blues party.
There is little to add to summarise what is a superb album of guitar-based blues. If this doesn’t lift him further into the public eye, then there is no justice. He deserves to be recognised as the startling talent that he is, so if you love the blues, if you love guitar playing at its finest, do yourself a favour and get your hands on this…you will not be disappointed.
TENdoodle paws out of TEN …
- Two Steps Forward
- You Need Me
- Sad Sad Day
- The Answer
- Time’s Ticking
- Gotta Right
- Hold On
Kirk Fletcher: guitar, vocals
Jonny Henderson: organ, piano, Wurlitzer
Matt Brown: drums
Mahalia Barnes: vocals
Jade McCrea: vocals
Recorded at Canyon Sound, Bristol (UK).