304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
I do love a challenge, especially if it incorporates a bit of wordsmithery…and that’s what I got when I saw the title of The Bush League’s latest album, James RiVAh. (It is a little belated and I apologise for that…the album actually came out in early 2018 but was buried in a ridiculously overcrowded desktop). I guessed fairly quickly that the capitalised ‘VA’ was the abbreviation for the fair state of Virginia; the ‘Ri’ (or perhaps just the ‘R’) refers to the city of Richmond, but it took this geographically challenged Englishman a little research to find that Richmond is on the banks of the James River and the locals pronounce it “riv-ah”…conundrum solved, I think!
The band has been together since 2007 and has a substantial following in their home state as they gig relentlessly and share their brand of blues infused with liberal helpings of soul, funk and rock and a smattering of gospel, although the band describe it rather neatly as “shiny new, dirty ol’ blues”. This is their second studio album, and their fifth release overall and they supply 10 original and two cover versions, all recorded in Memphis where they recruited some serious talent to back up their own inherent flair and instrumental skills.
It opens with the hill country beat of River’s Edge (appropriate if my research is accurate… if so, let’s call it Rivah’s Edge). It quickly transforms into a ‘Smokestack Lightnin’ feeling blues with a dirty toned guitar riff and JohnJay’s soulful and bluesy vocals. The short picked solo is cleverly wrong in its staccato approach and sounds great. The Mississippi Fred McDowell classic, Kokomo Me Baby is next and it takes the essence of the song and, courtesy of some neat guitar from Trenton Ayers (The Cedric Burnside Project) suffuses it with a jazz/blues aroma. The restrained solo makes this a standout as they electrify yet keep McDowell’s structure. Say Yes is a ballad strongly biased toward the soul side of the band. Imagine Vandross singing the blues, backed by such empathetic guitars and horns, and you’ll be right here. It’s not my cup of Guinness but is extremely well done. More in my window is the upbeat funky blues of Show You Off, which is a blues version of Stevie Wonder with the electric piano ambience, although the swirling organ expands it and contributes a great solo over a brilliant bass line. Catfish Blues is next…a track made famous by Muddy Waters but written by Robert Petway in 1941 (the verse from Catfish is actually the Waters’ song Rollin’ Stone) but they credit it to Waters, so my early blues collection CD liner notes could be wrong). Regardless of its origins, the Bush League take it and make it simply superb, I love the way they interpret the whole thing and keep the original in mind the entire time. The guitar playing throughout this brilliant song is exceptional and is worth getting the album just for this. It also gives a guide to the strengths of the band, as there are no guests on this one, just TBL giving it hell! Kick Up Yo Heels takes things back to hill country with some great drumming on the intro and throughout, with the bass keeping up admirably. I’m not sure that offering to rub a date’s legs in Vaseline in the best chat up line however. The guitar tends to remain in the background but provides some great runs if you listen closely. Long Gone is entrancing with the slow start before it builds into a blues-rock number of quality. The guitar solo is another carefully constructed and too short exploration of the fretboard. Hearse is next and, as the title suggests, it is a little dark… and gets darker when you realise the vehicle is for transporting a woman he intends to murder as he stole for her and was duly imprisoned. It has a bass line bedrock and a low in the mix piece of more excellent guitar and comes together as a nice rock based blues tune. Tuxedo Blues lightens the mood even though it is a staple story in the blues of ‘my baby doin’ me wrong’ but with the twist of being about returning the hired tuxedo for the wedding that will no longer be happening. Delivered over another quality bass performance and, for the first time, some first class harp, it is a slow blues with soulful vocals and, latterly, some fine horns. Moonshine is in honour of that ubiquitous liquor. It is a really clever juke joint update with the barrelhouse piano and a rock-based back line. Time to take a Cold Shower next as JohnJay bemoans the nearly, almost but not quite experience with his lady…all laid over (pun intended) a true rock base with guitar and bass in harmony and a staccato, purposely hesitant picked solo just fits right in…a great song. What’s Wrong With You closes the album at breakneck speed with a bass to shake the speakers, sympathetic guitars over a B3 sound. There is, despite the rapid beat, a touch of gospel in this one and that feeling grows when what sounds like the whole of Memphis join in with clapping and hollering.
So here we have an album that is chock full of quality performances with some truly original originals. Veering too much toward soul on occasion for my personal tastes but still hugely enjoyable, it is an album any blues lover would appreciate in their collection. Blues-rockers will also be more than satisfied with Catfish and Cold Shower as standouts. Give it a listen and enjoy and sorry again to TBL for the slight delay!
Track listing, composers and musicians:
Produced by The Bush League
Recorded at Ardent Studios, Memphis