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September 2011

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Sugar Ray & the Bluetones
Severn Records

Sugar Ray

Evening (Severn Records), the new CD from veteran New England blues cats Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, is rapidly moving up my list of favorite discs from 2011. The fact that it comes from  Severn Records is not surprising considering the Maryland-based label is becoming what Black Top Records was in the '90s --- a producer of consistently high quality blues recordings from a variety of acts both young and old.

This album is quite simply an exemplary collection of blue collar blues from a top-notch band led by singer/harmonica player Sugar Ray Norcia. Sugar Ray is a fine harmonica, but what's even more impressive is his vocal work throughout the disc. He's matured into a strong, bluesy vocalist who combines his raspy, soulful blues with the power of jump blues chops la Smiley Lewis, with a little of the classic Muddy Waters growl mixed in.

The Bluetones consists of "Monster" Mike Welch on guitar, Michael "Mudcat" Ward on bass, Neil Gouvin on drums, and Anthony Geraci on piano. Welch first burst on the scene as a precocious teen more than a dozen years ago and as an adult continues to earn his nickname --- the man is truly a "monster" on guitar.

Sugar Ray sets the proper tone with the first cut, the Johnny Young original "I'm Having A Ball," an up-tempo shuffle with all of the instrumentalists getting a chance to show off, especially guitarist Welch.

"You Know My Love" sounds like it could have come from the Magic Sam songbook, but was written by Willie Dixon and done by Otis Rush. Welch continues to amaze with his tasteful guitar licks behind Sugar Ray's soaring vocals.

Sugar Ray wrote eight of the dozen songs here, with one of his best originals being the basic mid-tempo blues shuffle "I Like What You Got" on which he stars with both echo-y vocals and harmonica.

A favorite is the brilliant, dirge-like blues narrative "Too Many Rules And Regulations," on which Sugar Ray authentically sounds  like an 80-year-old blues man. This song is proof that the blues is still around in our modern society, with Sugar Ray's tales high cholesterol counts from eating too many cheeseburgers, parking restrictions, flu epidemics, and the evils of hard drinking. For example, Sugar Ray sings, " ... I was also reading about the evils of hard drinking, I'm just going to have to give up reading, I'm thinking, because there's too many rules and regulations ..."

The next cut opens with ethereal Native American flute, making the listener sit up and say "wtf?" before Sugar Ray and the band jump into the mid-tempo blues shuffle "Dancing Bear (Little Indian Boy)." Welch turns in a nice blues guitar solo midway through the cut.

The title cut is a jazzy, late night blues with tasty piano accompaniment from Geraci and Sugar Ray's eerie chromatic harmonica. Norcia then takes it back down south with a Slim Harpo-sounding harmonica intro to his own "I Came Down With The Blues," which features still another red hot blues guitar instrumental break from Welch.

The slow blues "(That's Not Yet) One Of My Blues," an original from bassist Ward, just might be the best cut on the disc. It certainly grew on me the more I listened to it. But then Sugar Ray comes in with the jump blues of "I'm Certain That I'm Hurting," one that would fit into any 1950s-era radio playlist. Man, is this one ever hot, hot, hot! I could easily visualize Big Joe Turner shouting out the blues on this one if the big man was still around.

Evening comes to a subtle close with a nice, jazzy instrumental number, "XO." Well, it's not a true instrumental in that Sugar Ray shouts out encouragement to his band members towards the end of the song. Regardless, it's a nice mellow nightcap to an evening of high energy blues.

I just can't stop listening to Evening. Get it when you can --- you won't regret it.

--- Bill Mitchell


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