Blues Bytes


August 2007

an associate

Robert Noll
Robert Noll Blues Mission
Happy Bluesday
Live Retrospect Volume 1
Live Retrospect Volume 2
Dear Friend

No Cover Productions

Robert Noll

Robert Noll was the highly-regarded second guitarist with Albert Collins in the mid-1980s. He followed that with a stint with Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows before returning to his hometown of Detroit and becoming big man on campus for a while. He then dropped under the radar to clean up some personal demons and dedicate himself to teaching for a few years.

He’s re-emerged from a period of under-activity and fans are celebrating. Detroit’s No Cover Productions label, which has 80+ Detroit titles on its roster, has added five from Noll, including a pair of re-issues from early in Noll’s post-Collins career. The re-issued 1989 debut disc, Robert Noll Blues Mission, with insightful and extensive notes from Noll, is a dazzling guitar extravaganza. Here are Albert Collins references galore (including a wonderful take on “Deep Freeze”) and guitar licks that put him in the company of the finest players in the land. Given his years on the road as second guitarist to Collins those influences would be difficult to get around. There are also bits of SRV, Albert King, Hendrix, and Johnny Winter, sometimes in the same tune.

The Sun Messengers Horns guest behind a rockin’ rhythm team of Eddie Harsch (piano, synth), Will Leonard (drums) and Tom MacGuigan (bass). Other guest players include the spectacular harpin’ of Kenny Welk and B-3 master Tom Cook. Noll’s bandmates from Albert Collins’ Icebreakers, bass master Johnny B. Gayden and the late drummer Soko Richardson, and the horns from Big Twist & the Mellow Fellows are also on board.

Heavyweight session mates aside, this is unquestionably all about Robert Noll. The guitar work is always exemplary, and often transcendent. “Fade My Blues” is the chill-generating centerpiece. “Past Due for a Whuppin’” and “Everybody Wants to Go To Heaven” are also standouts in a program that impresses from beginning to end.

Happy Bluesday first saw the light of day in 1995. The recording band was Jim Noel on various keys, Will Leonard at the drums, and Lonnie Motley holding down the bass. Greasy Carlisi (bass), Mark Stevens (drums), and Peter Madcat Ruth (harp) sat in, as did Fred Reif (washboard) and Henry Weck (cymbals and cowbells). Nikki James and Brandy Ruble add their sassy vocals to “Cold Women With Warm Hearts.”

The title cut is a rocker, “Dear Friend,” a pensive reminiscence, and “Mountain Top,” a gospel-inspired instrumental tune that Noll wrote based on a line from the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. Tributes to the Alberts – Collins (“Freezer Burn”) and King (“I Got the Blues” and exquisite takes on “I’ll Play the Blues For You” and “As the Years Go Passin’ By”) and a first rate cover of Freddie King’s “Love Her With A Feeling” are standouts.

“Jenie” may be the real standout number on the disc, melding all of Noll’s influences, including Stevie Ray Vaughan. Noel’s keyboard work matches Noll’s elastic guitar lines beautifully.

Robert NollLive Retrospect Volume 1, recorded in 1992 and 1993, is a slice of the energy generated by Noll and his impressive Blues Mission --- bassist Lonnie Motley (later with George Clinton and Chaka Khan), soulful keyboardist Jim Noel, and longtime Noll pal and drummer Mark Stevens. The heart of this disc is the medley of “You Was Wrong”/”Mountain Top.” Noll raps/testifies (ala Albert King) about what the real blues are --- hungry and abused children and the homeless --- and unleashes some of the most soulful and expressive guitar work this writer has ever heard.

As hard an act as this is to follow, he does so admirably with an extensive “Mission Boogie,” a mishmash of styles from ZZ Top to Savoy Brown to Hendrix and Jeff Beck. As he says in the liners, he has been known to stretch a tune out. This 11-minute gem is proof that there is always a reward for the listener when he does so, as Noll just shreds here. There is also an impressive take on the Jeff Beck version of Freddie King’s “Goin’ Down” to recommend the disc.

Live Retrospect Volume 2, recorded in 1991 in a power trio format of Noll with drummer Skeeto and bassist Tom McGuigan, is comprised almost exclusively of music from the classic canon. Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray are represented here and Noll’s deftness at any style is evident throughout. “The Sky Is Crying” is given the finest treatment this writer has heard this side of Vaughan’s and on “For the Love of a Woman,” he offers fuzz leads that remind of Cream-era Clapton. “New Bad Attitude,” the only original here, has an infectious shuffle that’s loaded with ‘tude, and his take on Albert Collin’s “Flatt Tire” is a funky instrumental groover on which he cuts loose.

Influences were strong throughout the live dates, but the chops were never in doubt. These are no mere “covers” in Noll’s hands. He claims them for his own and proves himself as astute a student as he is an adept performer.

Dear Friend, from Ronnie Lee Noll, represents the latest recorded work from the guitarist and vocalist. The title tune has been part of his repertoire for 20 years and reaffirms his faith in those who make up his expansive inner circle of friends. The acoustic work performed by Noll over-tracked on rhythm and lead acoustic guitars was recorded live at Lenny’s Coffee Gallery in Eastpointe and at the No Cover studios.

Carl Caballero blows harp on some tunes, though this is otherwise a solo set and is split between impressive originals and classics. “Somebody Got the Blues Worse Than You” and the superb Taj Mahal-style “Move On, I’m Out of Here” are the standouts of the original tunes, and his interpretation of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Slidin’ Delta,” here called “Side In Delta,” is wonderful, as is his medley of “Trouble In Mind/Key To The Highway.” The closing version of “Jesus Loves Me” would make Gary Davis smile.

All in all a superb body of music from an overlooked master.

--- Mark E. Gallo


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