january 2009

Matthew Stubbs

Considering that the human voice makes no utterance on Mathew Stubbs's Soul Bender, it's remarkable how much singing actually goes on here. Twenty-five-year old Stubbs, now ensconced as the guitarist in Charlie Musselwhite's band, summons from his instrument a multitude of affecting textures that say more than words, and then gives his accompanying horn players ample room to add their own eloquent statements, which they do when the opportunity arises. The result is an all-instrumental album of cinematic proportions and endlessly engaging musical journeys. At no point does virtuosity-and these guys have plenty to spare-take precedence over soul; if anything these attributes coexist in a seamless whole. In the driving boogie attack of "Stompin' On Thru," Stubbs demonstrates a wild, distorted flailing attack leavened by quick, clean-picked bursts of notes that resolve back to the propulsive riffing, but in the end it's the sheer buoyant attitude of the piece that is most affecting. If filmmaker Bruce Brown hadn't already made The Endless Summer some 40 years ago, he could hire Stubbs and his mates to provide the exhilarating musical counterparts to riding the waves that the director found back then in The Sandals. The wild roller-coaster ride that is "The Meat Sweats," with Stubbs leading the horn-fueled charge with a twang-suffused top strings workout and a classic bottom strings riff to boot, could perfectly illustrate the adrenaline rush of hanging 10 at Steamer Lane, whereas the Bo Diddley stomp of the evocatively titled "Sticky Bunz"—mostly a powerhouse showcase for a soaring, wailing tenor sax solo by the redoubtable Sax Gordon—summons the heightened exhiliration of a pipeline ride (as a listener you're advised to take a wide, stinkbug stance on your figurative board and scream at the top of your lungs!). But Soul Bender isn't a surf album; it's an album of varying moods and textures that becomes deeply soulful. "Rivelli's Mood," so titled after drummer Chris Rivelli, is a languid, reflective, late-night blues, contemplative and mellow at closing time. The feisty horn-and-guitar swagger of "20 Gallons of Beadle Juice," in which Stubbs's spitfire bottom strings soloing is beautifully answered by Gordon's warm, sputtering sax solo, explains why Vizztone label co-founder Bob Margolin—who knows whereof he speaks when it comes to blues guitar—likens listening to Stubbs and his band to what might have obtained had Freddie King recorded in Memphis with the Bar-Kays or at Hi Records. Well put, that, because another luscious treat here is the swaying, sultry slow blues of "Charlotte Ann," marked by a laid-back, timeless riff from Stubbs and a rich, soothing wash of horns meshing with the guitar in a striking but restrained pumping chorus. Going out on a strutting note the band offers a stomping "Stubbzilla," 4:21 of treble and twang guitar (you'll swear you can hear parts of three or four familiar tunes in Stubbs's sweat-stained solo runs) and a driving, pulsating horn arrangement that keeps curling in on itself. Soul Bender, so aptly titled, is a treat any time it's cued up. This review is being written at the break of day on January 1, as bright sunlight streams in through the window. If December 31 ends on as fine a note as this, 2009 will be a good year indeed. —David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
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