Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion don’t hide on Chameleon

Never one to reinvent the wheel, I think the introduction from the last review of the wonderful Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion is as accurate now as it was in 2018…”Zoe Schwarz has been a big name on the blues scene for a few years now, with her live performances particularly lauded by fans and the press. Now with her band, Blue Commotion comes an album that should lift all of them to the heights they deserve. The band got together in 2012, and this is their 5th studio album in six years; that is quite an output in a short space of time. Fortunately, there has been no sacrifice in quality, and The Blues And I Should Have A Party, has class and high production values by the bucket load. The band is packed with talent and, even though there is no bassist listed, there are some fantastic bass lines behind some of the tracks and the sound they all achieve throughout fills any room with warmth and paints pictures with the sound they conjure”.

I could finish there as the latest (sixth) album from this classy blues band deserves the same plaudits…except, after a few listens, I think it may be even better! Chameleon is generous too with twelve original tracks (or is it?) that reflect the title…rooted in blues, the band still change colour to suit the song providing us with some rock, shuffles, r’n’b, funk and soul served with the ever present superb vocals and musicianship.

Opener, Life Goes On, has that irresistible groove that Rob Koral is so adept at as the band weave a horn backed melody around the lovely vocal inflections of Zoe…I guess the only moans from me are the lack of a solo that seemed to be about to start and the over accentuation of the ‘b’ in ‘blues jarred at first…still, if you listen carefully the deft fret work is there and the vocals are varied and powerful enough that you soon get used to it and it begins to make sense. Listen carefully to the bass and drum work too that, throughout the album, provides such a solid and effective backing that makes each track stronger. Better Days is next and it is an absolute corker; it may be a bit heavier than previous outings but it has a great riff that works well as the horns, keys and guitar introduce and back the brilliant vocal melody. Then we get the trademark inventive solo from Rob that, combined with the riff reminds me of Burn era Blackmore…although the last few wah’d phrases contradicts that a bit. If Only I Could Be With You takes the rumba as a backing and fits in (hurrah!) a cowbell too. This is a song that has so much to listen to…the percussion is so clever; the organ knows how to bring washes of sound when it should and a solo that, like the guitar solo, is stunning and Zoe paints pictures over it with lines like “I would solve a cryptogram and write an epigram” or “ I’d change your nightmares to dreams: I’d change your bitter to sweet”. Hello My Old Friend lets the gentle organ sounds lead and give space and tone for a remarkable vocal with thought provoking lyrics too on this high quality ballad: the guitar solo is another example of how Rob can put the emotion into every note to reflect the message as does Pete on the Hammond. The outro is beyond belief as everyone puts in an extra blast of emotion. Give Me The Key To Your Heart is a shuffle that many big bands, past and present, would be proud of as the band capture all that is good in this sub genre…then, as if to keep my guitar mania sated, another brilliant, short solo followed by another Hammond virtuoso performance as the horns back everything with restraint and class. I’ll Be Here For You is introduced by gently picked and lyrical guitar as Zoe puts everything into the story and, when the band join in , they stay restrained and subtle to give space for the vocal. Apart from an oh so gentle Hammond section and a short picked and passionate guitar solo, this is all about Zoe and her unerring ability to use the right tone and inflections to suit the passion…plus I also celebrate the fact that it is not a struggle to understand every word. I Hope I See The Day is a magic mix of blues, reggae and Madness! Somehow it does work and the bounce to the melodies means you can’t help but join in. Any doubts are dispelled by Rob’s dexterity and craft on a lamentably short solo as well as the electric piano piece that alternates with him. When The Blues Come A Knocking is unsurprisingly, a blues song with depth and another lesson in backing from all of the musicians. Zoe meanwhile does a lovely Eartha Kitt style vocal although Eartha Kitt’s name or voice just summon up her playing Catwoman in the 60s, Adam West definitive Batman on TV. (I only ever saw the repeats…honest!) That aside, the song is quite delicious and the guitar solo uses just a few notes to transform the whole thing…listen also for background wah’d chords and the subtle Hammond all topped off with drum fills that so many modern drummers should listen to…there are more sounds that a crash cymbal beaten to death! Amazon Woman is a bit more rock and has more cowbell! The guitar and Hammond sound great with a hefty blues riff as Zoe moves from subtle to a rock banshee vocal showing her versatility. The bonus here is another tasty Hammond solo followed by a fret travelling guitar solo of such quality as Rob plays ingeniously with the melodies. I Just Cry To Think Of It has a funk laden background with plenty of horns to flesh it out. A soft, sometimes semi spoken vocal builds the tension and then Zoe throws in catchy chorus too. It seems a bit laboured at first but the guitar and Hammond solos lift it and, after a few listens, I understand it. Tell Me had a surprise for me…the brushed drums and electric piano/Hammond multi tracking are great but I didn’t expect a triangle! I’m pretty sure that’s what it wasI think the only other examples of this in my entire collection are on a couple of Jon Lord’s majestic classical pieces. Anyway, it may be languid in feel but it is still a delight. The guitar solo is, again, breath taking if too short for me. Final track, Come And Lay With Me, is nearly ten minutes of a sultry shuffle with an intro that is pure Booker T before Zoe growls in and is joined by the odd horn interjection….”My pulse is racing, you’ve got my juices flowing” is a clue as to the rather overt content of which I approve heartily! Once again the guitar solo is just sublime as is the Hammond…I could listen to these two trading solos all day. The next surprise is that, halfway through, the song ends and after a few seconds silence we are treated to an unlisted bluesy/jazzy version of Nina Simone’s Lover Man. The smoky jazz feel is spot on and Zoe does the lady and herself proud. It’s not my favourite but is well worth sticking with as, once again, a close listen reveals all sorts of clever goings on in the backing, plus the jazzy solos are beautiful. I don’t know why they decided to leave this hidden and unlisted, but at least you know now!

This is a hugely entertaining album of subtlety, craft and skill…Zoe’s voice entrances as always but the big thing for me is the way every listen reveals yet more from the musicians behind her. They are always just right with the pace and they seem to have an inherent knack of knowing when a fill, flourish or even a bit of flash is needed. Give it a listen, and I do mean listen, and you will agree I’m sure.

Bluesdoodles rating: Wonderful – Zoe’s vocal entrance and the musicanship is superb

Track listing:

  1. Life Goes On
  2. Better Days
  3. If Only I Could Be With
  4. Hello My Old Friend
  5. Give Me the Key to Your Heart
  6. I’ll Be Here for You
  7. I Hope I See the Day
  8. When the Blues Come a Knocking
  9. Amazon Woman
  10. I Cry Just to Think of It
  11. Tell Me
  12. Come and Lay with Me
  13. All songs written by Rob Koral & Zoe Schwarz except Tell Me, written by Sue Hawker & Rob Koral

    Musicians:

    Rob Koral – guitars

    Zoe Schwarz – vocals

    Pete Whittaker – Hammond organ & electric piano

    Paul Robinson – drums & percussion

    Guest Musicians:

    Ian Ellis – tenor saxaphone

    Patrick Hayes – trombone

    Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion don’t hide on Chameleon

    (The iTunes run on supplied a blast of the inimitable Zoot Money and his Big Roll Band with the enigmatically titled Smack Dab in The Middle Approx. A slice of good time r’n’b with some swing and blues mixed in.)

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