A little over two years ago, when Rick Holmstrom released Gonna Get Wild (reviewed in Blues Bytes April 2000), I had made the slightly silly prediction that Rod Piazza & The Mighty Flyers might soon be looking for a new guitarist based on how good that album was. Nobody was more shocked than myself when that prediction came to pass in recent months, with Rick breaking off from The Flyers and going solo.
Hydraulic Groove (Tone-Cool) is the name of this cutting edge release from a masterful guitar technician who joins the ranks, alongside R.L. Burnside and Corey Harris, in pushing the envelope of modern day blues to its outer limits. Holmstrom’s extremely bold and quite unexpected approach can best be described as techno-funky blues with a splash of tabasco sauce on a few tunes, while maintaining the harmonic tonal slyness and genius that has marked every recording this guy has ever done.
Upon first listen, Hydraulic Groove may stun fans of Rick’s past works, both solo and with Piazza, into writing off this wonderfully different release as a misdirected "artistic" (pinky extended) project. Not so. The bop of the opening “These Roads” sets the upbeat pace for the rest of the album, with longtime friend Johnny Dyer shouting the introduction and Holmstrom firing off some scorching licks, set against a changing musical backdrop that at times consists of a bit of psychedelia tape looping, hip hop,funk and blues, all stirred together with some highly confident vocals.
“Bobo The Hobo,” the album’s first instrumental, stays much in the same vein, at times changing lanes between a funky reggae backbeat, Memphis soul and straight up blues, all set into a steady loping groove that absorbs you completely. This is due in part to some slippery organ riffs by Genome (really his name), whose contributions throughout this record are impeccable.
Along a slightly more traditional line is “Last To Know,” a very pleasant strutting bop that has single written all over it. The shuffling techno urgency of “Pee Wee’s Nightmare” features some stunning soloing that you never want to end, and “My Maria” only reinforces the fact that Holmstrom has very much indeed arrived as a frontline vocalist. This piece is set against a punching beat and wiry guitar riffs.
“Harlan Shuffle” is an almost ragtime-ish / 'soft shoe' little number that sounds like all the players involved were just having fun; you can hear the smiles in the music.
Closing out the standard 11 tracks (as there are four bonus numbers) is a straight ahead boogying number, entitled “I’m Gone,” which I have had the pleasure of hearing Rick perform at several recent Mighty Flyer gigs --- it totally cooks. As for the four bonus tunes, “Roll Tape” and “Hamps Hump” are the two jams you don’t want to miss, featuring the organ expertise of John Medeski on both.
As no man is an island in the recording studio, Mighty Flyer Steve Mugalian continues to write his legacy as one of the blues’ premier drummers, playing on every track but three. Jeff Turmes, who is consistently brilliant no matter which hat he happens to be wearing, handles bass duties on 12 numbers, sax on a couple more and even engineering for two. Stephen Hodges lends his percussive wizardry to four numbers. The previously mentioned Genome co-produced a few numbers with Holmstrom, who produced everything else himself.
Holmstrom is just plain amazing on every track. It’s about time the blues community gave this cat his just due as one of the genre's great guitarists. Hydraulic Groove is a very brave record that dares to break away from the mold of West Coast blues as we now know it and carry it into the 21st century.
This is one of the most progressive blues recordings I have heard in years. Way to go, Holmes!
--- Steve Hinrichsen
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