If Joe Bonamassa makes a statement like
“…whilst you have the likes of Joanne Shaw Taylor, Chantel McGregor and Rebecca Downes playing the Blues, then Blues in the UK is most definitely in a very good place”
– then you know they are good. On her fourth album, Stripped Back, Rebecca proves that faith is well placed with a sort of reworked best of, taking tracks from Believe (four) and More Sinner Than Saint (six), giving them a meaningful reinterpretation and adding two unreleased ones too. (Use the search facility to find reviews of those albums and an interview with Rebecca and long-time co-writer, Steve Birkett.)
This album came about when the damnable lockdowns prevented planned work on a ‘proper’, new studio album; without being able to tour to promote it, Rebecca and multi-instrumentalist Steve, spoke and, in Rebeccas words,
“we spoke and agreed that it was the opportunity to do bring this project forward and get on with it. Then when the first lockdown eased, we did some duo online gigs and that convinced us even more that there was real scope to present these numbers in a new and exciting way that would appeal to our supporters. And I’m over the moon that the two new tracks can be released at last. I have always really loved them, but I couldn’t see how they would ever fit on one of our normal blues/rock albums.”
Believe kicks it all off with a bass intro like Budgie’s Black Velvet Stallion but, after a count in from Rebecca, it becomes a slide-driven treat…enough difference from the other version that it is worth buying this rework immediately; the slide and vocal are delicious.
The first new song is Blues For Us: this one is a slow, blues song with hints of jazz in the background chord work. A typical emotion-filled and perfectly pitched vocal draws you in and doesn’t let go…the empathetic, crafted solo from Steve is equally emotional, too short, and lovely. Rebecca even fits in a couplet of lines from ‘Fever’ to round it off beautifully. Come With Me Baby heads toward soul/pop but the guitar phrasing is pure blues and, after a few listens, the whole thing becomes as entrancing as every other track.
Hurts loses some of the rock recipe from the original, and is jazz-tinged with the percussion, keys, and acoustic approaching a boss move…but that lilt, the vocals, and guitar still impress, although I do prefer the rockier one, this still stands proud. More Sinner Than Saint also loses its rocky edge but, in this case, the country blues transformation is simply stunning, and the ‘orchestration’ adds so much depth.
Night Train is the sort of blues/soul treatment that could have been created in the 1930s and updated with electric slide phrases and sublime vocal harmonies to make a song that, regardless of how you interpret the clever lyrics, will stay with you for long after the (proverbial) needle lifts. Sailing On A Pool Of Tears has been transformed into an acoustic reading of a lovely song…it’s still lovely as the vocal is even more impassioned and the Spanish guitar inflections are complimentary and the solo a delight. Screaming Your Name is now a piano-led ballad with acoustic interjections…slow and burning with more clever orchestration from perennial smartarse, Steve…sorry Steve, I’m just jealous.
Take Me Higher is a multi-layered piece of blues that needs careful attention as, behind the slightly annoying handclaps, the instrumentation is genius; needless to say the vocals are gorgeous. Washing Over My Heart is the second new track; a soulful blues that, once again, has so many layers that it’s like listening to a different song each time if you concentrate on each complex, brilliant element. Wave Them
Goodbye is my favourite rework: the bass is great, the slide as slinky as a slink(!), and both Rebecca and Steve’s vocals make this a mustn’t miss conversation….now if only you could rework the rework and add in a half-hour slide solo, please.
The final track, With Me, is an acoustic delight; slow, layered electric, and a countrified vocal approach that will mesmerise.
I confess I do prefer their rocking stuff but this is an ingenious ‘reimagining’ of some great tracks and the thoughtful treatment does provide a whole new appreciation of the familiar. The good news is that, until live concerts are back again, work on new material continues with an eye to an album of new, original material later this year or early 2022.
Bluesdoodles rating: 4 Doodle Paws – A Wonderful album that brings a new dimension to songs we’re familiar with and two new ones too…what’s not to love?
Blues For Us
Come With Me Baby
More Sinner Than Saint
Sailing On A Pool Of Tears
Screaming Your Name
Take Me Higher
Washing Over My Heart
Wave Them Goodbye
Rebecca Downes: vocals
Steve Birkett: everything else!
(apart from the gigging band – Neil Ablard, Nigel Darvill, Aiden Goldstraw, and Vince Yarrington – who contributed remotely to the track ‘Hurts’).
(iTunes took me back to 1993 and the short-lived melodic rock band Red Dawn; formed by David Rosenthal, the line-up also saw fellow Rainbow alumni Chuck berg join together again for a solid set of songs a la Night Ranger…called Never Say Surrender, the title track is a highlight.)