Tuesday, November 23, 1999

Rock shines through on 'Shades of Blue II'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's a harder shade of blue this year, as producers Marcos Sastre and Larry Goshorn have assembled a cast that leans toward the rock side of blues.

        The first Shades showcased such local blues veterans as Big Joe Duskin, Sweet Alice Hoskins and Little Al Thomas. Keith Little (who sings the late Luther Allison's “Big City”) is the sole African-American blues singer on II, though jazz singer Bill Caffie does a fine version of the Dominoes' “Sixty Minute Man,” a 1951 hit for King-Federal Records.

        The set features its producers prominently and to good effect. Mr. Goshorn opens the 16-song set, out today, with a smooth take on the Taj Mahal favorite “She Caught the Katy.”

        Mr. Sastre weighs in with a gritty version of Jimi Hendrix's “Fire,” a song that's much more rock than blues. But he hits the blues side in a swaggering Blue Birds Big Band version of another King Records classic, Freddie King's “Tore Down,” featuring the ever-soulful Bam Powell on vocals. Bam also sings Roger Yeardley's funky original “Big and Bold,” which pays tribute to King Records star James Brown.

        LeRoy Ellington sings a more direct JB tribute on the funk standard, “Cold Sweat,” another King oldie.

        The four-man Blue Birds do another local tune, Lonnie Mack's “Cincinnati Jail.” It's a big, brawny arrangement, complete with testosterone-fueled guitar and a high-pitched vocal chorus in which singer-keyboardist Charlie Fletcher seems to be channeling the Raeletts.

        Two of the best tracks here veer farthest from the CD's blues-rock formula. Blue Bird drummer Chris Arduser goes back to his folk-rocking Graveblankets for a complete reinvention of the Rev. Robert Wilkins' “Gamblin' Man.” Chris makes it sound like an Arduser original.

        Big In Iowa also went beyond the usual blues suspects, combining a couple of Leadbelly songs. “No Good Rider/Leaving Blues” is a satisfyingly funky, organ-driven workout showcasing Rick House's incisive lead guitar.

        Local guitar hero Sonny Moorman displays his considerable chops on the rocking “Oh Well,” the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac standard recently covered by Noah Hunt and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

        Singer Dixie Karas, best-known for musical theater work and her recent appearance on the Skyline Golden Sampler, sassily swings on “Route 66” backed only by husband Ted's jazzy guitar.

        Bill Champlin, a San Francisco Bay area guitarist who plays with the group Chicago, is the highest profile guest here. He backs singer/guitarist and former Cincinnatian Dave Widow on their original, “Second-Hand Love.”

        Co-producer Mr. Goshorn dips into B.B. King's song bag for a laid-back “The Thrill Is Gone.”

        He also provides finger-picked guitar behind the disc's second most unexpected vocal performance. Gary Burbank, playing against type on the uncharacteristically serious, bizarrely Gothic “St. James Infirmary.”

        But the biggest vocal surprise is saved for last, as local jazz guitar master Kenny Poole closes the set singing, duetting his guitar for the gently swinging blues “Centerpiece.”

        Friday, in a reprise of last year's CD release show, Shades II comes alive at Music Hall Ballroom with most of the musicians from the CD. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show are $18.75 plus service charges at Ticketmaster and the box offices of the Aronoff Center and Music Hall (241-7469).


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