december 2011

Duke Robillard: nary a false step to be found nor note false note to be heard herein

Right And Righteous Blues

By David McGee

robillardLOW DOWN & TORE UP
The Duke Robillard Band
Stony Plain (released September 2011)

Guitar master Duke Robillard has been making wonderful solo and band records for a long time, and also adding his six-string flair to some memorable studio outings by artists on the order of Bob Dylan and Ruth Brown. But since throwing his lot in with Canada’s estimable Stony Plain label in 1993, he’s been on a non-stop roll both as a solo artist and as a producer. Now up to his 18th album for Stony Plain, Duke has delivered one of his finest efforts yet in revisiting some of his favorite blues styles of yore in Low Down & Tore Up, an occasion for him to show off his abundant artistry as a musician, singer and producer all at once.

Working with his stellar bandmates Bruce Bears on piano, Brad Hallen on acoustic bass and ever reliable Mark Texeira on drums, with an assist from Duke Robillard Band alums Matt McCable (piano on half of the album’s 14 tracks) and powerhouse tenor/baritone sax man Sax Gordon, Robillard roars and ruminates through a selection of tunes he identifies in the liner notes as being crucial to his early development as a blues player—songs by Pee Wee Crayton, John Lee Hooker, Guitar Slim, Tampa Red, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy McCracklin, Sugar Boy Crawford, Elmore James, Bobby “Blues” Merrill. Next, he went a bit further and made sure he was true to the original sound of those records. To this end, he and his cohorts set up and wailed for two days, “just a ‘whatever-happens’ vibe with lots of ensemble playing,” he says in the liner notes, adding: “This is what I think of as a real blues record; not a lot of fuss, no worry about perfection, and mostly ‘let’s have a good time!’”

The Duke Robillard Band, Eddie Taylor’s ‘Trainfare Home,’ from Low Down & Tore Up. Sax solo by Sax Gordon.

It doesn’t stop there. Robillard employed an array of vintage guitars to get the authentic sound that first took him away during his Rhode Island youth. That heavy, thick-noted sound on Pee Wee Crayton’s sinuous, laconic “Blues After Hours”? That’s from his acoustic 1938 Epiphone Broadway guitar with the same attached pickup he used in the early Roomful of Blues days and a 1950s vintage Vega amp (with tasty support by way of the shower of tears raining down from McCabe’s down-and-out 88s). That lean, stinging attack on Eddie Taylor’s sax- and piano-fired kissoff, “Trainfare Home,” and on his growling reading of John Lee Hooker’s “Want Ad Blues”? That’s the Gibson ES355 sound Robillard fans know well. The brittle, piercing howls emanating from his axe on Pee Wee Crayton’s vengeful gem, “Do Unto Others”? Those come from a replica of the Stratocaster personally presented to Crayton by the instrument’s inventor, Leo Fender.

Not least of all, as engineer/producer Jack Gauthier reveals in his own liner notes, Low Down & Tore Up sounding so live and dynamic is the simple outcome of using micing and spacing techniques as did the old masters when many of these songs were originally committed to disc. “Duke and I have recorded many great blues artists and the meeting of sound and emotion to create the soul of what made those recordings so alive and real has always been our goal,” Gauthier says, with this too-true postscript: “Well this, my friend, is the real deal.”

The Duke Robillard Band, Tampa Red’s ‘Mercy Mercy Mama,’ from Lowdown & Tore Up. Piano solo by Matt McCable.

The instrumental work alone is enough to recommend this album, but its extra helping of personality comes by way of Duke’s seasoned vocals. Duke's singing has never been about virtuosic leaps of range or showy displays of power—he really doesn’t have the tools at his command to do either—but rather about soul, about the pure feeling he brings to the stories to jolt them to life. Like Dylan, he may be “just a song and dance man,” but like Dylan and a host of other acclaimed blues singers, he’s accomplished enough a vocalist to add extra dimension to what’s being played behind him. The aggrieved lover in “Mercy Mercy Mama” and the sly, lascivious suitor in the 1940s-style jump blues “Let Me Play With Your Poodle” (driven by Matt McCabe’s rousing piano workout), two Tampa Red tunes, are three-dimensional realizations; playing off of and to Gordon’s honking sax and a spirited backup chorus echoing his words, Duke delivers a comedic reading of the bustling KC-influenced shuffle associated with Bobby “Blues” Merrill, “I Ain’t Mad at You.” Playing the blues sage wise in the ways of love in his gravely take on Guitar Slim’s “Quicksand,” Duke opens the album on a stirring note, setting the stage for a fiery sax solo from Gordon followed by his own pointed commentary in a searing, circuitous guitar solo. If it sounds like all the pieces fell into place for Duke and his band on Lowdown & Tore Up, then that’s as it should be, because there is nary a false step to be found nor false note to be heard herein. These blues are right and righteous.

The Duke Robillard Band’s Lowdown & Tore Up is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
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