Zac Harmon adds heat to a Mississippi BarBQ

In case you don’t know of him, let me introduce a man who was raised in a blues-drenched district of Jackson, with a father who played harmonica for the likes of Muddy, BB and Albert King and Little Milton. It comes as no surprise therefore that Zac Harmon is similarly drenched. Add to that his professional career started at age sixteen when he began playing guitar with artists such as Sam Myers, Dorothy Moore and ZZ Hill among many.  After a move to LA he became a sought after songwriter and producer and worked with such diverse musicians as Michael Jackson Freddie Jackson and the O’Jays. He also forged a formidable reputation as a composer and has written dozens and dozens of film, TV and commercial pieces. He is now on to his seventh album of guitar-led blues and on this latest release, Mississippi BarBQ, he has taken the unusual step of recording with two distinct bands. The first, known as The Rays, are a group of experienced and class musicians from the world of blues; the second is his ‘normal’ band…equally experienced and classy. Together this troupe have woven the blues around funk, R’n’B, soul, gospel and rock on ten original songs and one cover version that, I admit, had me worried at first…more of that later.

The opening track, Gypsy Road, is blues, funk, rock and soul taken at a steady pace…what it reveals is Zac’s warm and emotion fuelled vocals and his skill and feel on the electric guitar, as well as the sure-footed skills of the backing band(s). The guitar stars with the strummed riff, neat phrasing behind the lyrics and a short and very sweet solo at the bridge and the to the fade; except it fades! So Cold has the electric piano, organ and horns to keep the funk and soul content high…but it is lifted again by the blues phrasing on the guitar and a solo that is picked carefully and effectively and revisited toward the fade. Smoke And Mirrors is next and maintains the funk with blues again represented by the subtle and emotive guitar pieces. The intro is clever bass and lead guitar and a clavinet masterwork backing it all it up…I say that because, for once, the clavinet is distinct and doesn’t move into the oh-so-familiar Superstition territory.  The guitar solo is another example of Zac’s ability to keep the right number of notes and so it’s not overplayed and therefore adds to the atmosphere and helps carry the message of the song. Another great solo is lost at the fade…why do they do that? The title track, Mississippi BarBQ, is all soul with the organ washing the background with subtle guitar chords…I was hoping for a bit more blues and even a bit of delta when I saw the title but it stays a bit too soul for me even with the tasty solo in the middle. Desperate Love picks it all back up with rock guitar backed by horns quietening down for the verses and the guitar throughout is worth listening carefully to as Zac employs chords, runs and bends to light up the backing and the solo is ingenious but doesn’t last long enough! Honey Pleez is an onomatopoeic plea to the local hive…or it could be addressed to his girl…regardless, this is a slice of R’n’B, blues with horns, piano and harp behind the impassioned vocal and is irresistible; especially the apt and skilful harp solo that heralds another brilliantly executed guitar solo. Make A Dollar Out Of Fifteen Cents is the next track and, were it possible, Zac would be a rich man! Introduced by seriously funky clavinet, organ and guitar, this story of penury is a foot-tapper that can’t be fought. Bouncy and funky but with Zac and guitar in Harmon(y) and a short solo that is perfectly pitched. Sunday Morning After Saturday Night moves into blues with a hint of jazz as the guitar leads the way and the horns follow. I guess the more ‘traditional’ approach makes this one the most immediate track on the album, as the guitar phrases throughout are simply great. The solo is reminiscent of the blues of Texas and, guess what? It is way too short. Lord Save Me From LA is my current favourite with its blues and mild funk…the guitar is spot on with every note during the verses and the solo. Since You Been Gone is not the cover I referred to; it is a soul song that doesn’t connect for me. The guitar and organ are exemplary and the solo is another great piece of studied fretwork however and still deserves a listen. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is the cover that worried me…there have been many attempts at this over the years and, personally, all of them have been cringe-worthy to some extent and the GNR one is switched off whenever it rears its head on the radio…oooh, controversial! No, until now, the only version I like is by Antony and the Johnsons. Zac takes a very different approach with piano and organ intro and then a guitar solo that plays with the original melody but it is so different it isn’t obvious until the cleverly rephrased and familiar lyrics cut in that it becomes apparent what we are listening to. The band behind him plays a blinder to preserve this unique interpretation, and then the blues-rock solo in the middle is majestic. It is therefore now my favourite version of this song…and that is praise indeed.

All in all, then, this is a very good album with sufficient blues to keep me happy. The playing is exceptional on every track and will be welcome whenever it crops up on my shuffled iPod. Yes, a couple of tracks didn’t do it for me but that doesn’t reflect on their quality…so if you like soulful and funky blues peppered with brilliant guitar then this is most definitely for you.

EIGHTpawprint half inchdoodle paws out of TEN …

Track listing:

  1. Gypsy Road
  2. So Cold
  3. Smoke And Mirrors
  4. Mississippi BarBQ
  5. Desperate Love
  6. Honey Pleez
  7. Make A Dollar Out Of Fifteen Cents
  8. Sunday Morning After Saturday Night
  9. Lord Save Me From L.A.
  10. Since You Been Gone
  11. Knocking On Heaven’s Door

Musicians

Zac Harmon – Vocals, Lead Guitar

The Rays – tracks 1,2,3,4,5,8 and 9

Bob Trenchard – Bass

Richy Puga – Drums

Johnny McGhee – Guitar

Dan Ferguson – Keyboards

Mike Middleton – Trumpet

Andy Roman – Alto Sax

Nick Flood – Tenor and Baritone Sax

Drake Dominigue – Trombone and Tuba

Horn arrangements by Rudy Torres

Zac Harmon Band – tracks 6,7,10 and 11

Cory Carmichael – Keyboards (additional keys on tracks 4 & 9)

Chris Gipson – Bass

Ralph Forrest – Drums

Texas Slim – Rhythm Guitar (Guitar solo track 8)

Janelle Thompson, Shakara Weston, SueAnn Carwell and Corey Carmichael – Backing Vocals



Recorded at:

Sonic Ranch, Tornillo, Texas

Produced by

Jim Gaines

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.