Blues Bytes

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September 2020

Sugar Ray and the Bluetones
Too Far From The Bar
Severn Records

Sugar Ray

The latest album from New England stalwarts Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, Too Far From The Bar, on Severn Records, is notable for several reasons. Produced by Duke Robillard, this recording was one of the last recording done by the late guitarist, Little Charlie Baty, as well as backing by some of the area's finest musicians. But most important, Too Far From The Bar contains 15 cuts of just plain outstanding blues. It's likely one of the best albums you'll hear this year.

In addition to Baty's exquisite guitar playing, other backing players include Anthony Geraci (piano), Michael Mudcat Ward (acoustic bass) and Neil Gouvin (drums), plus Robillard joins in on a few cuts. But this is Sugar Ray Norcia's show, and he plays some mighty mean harmonica throughout and his rich, smoky voice is well-suited to the material here.

Too Far From The Bar kicks off with a vintage "5" Royales cover, "Don't Give No More Than You Can Take," a mid-tempo shuffle on which Norcia inserts plenty of tasty harmonica breaks between the sound advice he's giving to his woman. The band slows the tempo for a rendition of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Bluebird Blues," the first of many opportunities for Geraci to show off his skills on the 88s. Norcia's voice has just the right timbre and richness for this one.

Up next is the title cut, an up-tempo blues that will likely be the highlight of the disc for many (me included). Geraci tears if up with plenty of fiery boogie woogie piano with Baty contributing an outstanding T-Bone Walker-style guitar solo. "Too Little Too Late" is a slower, rockabilly-ish ballad that again highlights Geraci's piano work (a repetitive theme throughout the album) as well as Robillard's first guest spot on guitar. That sets the stage for Norcia to go wild on his harp on the smokin' instrumental, "Reel Burner."

Norcia summons his inner Little Walter on a cover of Mr. Jacobs' slow blues classic, "Can't Hold Out Much Longer," blowing his harp just like the master on the original while Geraci comes in with Chicago-style blues piano. This one's an absolute gem. It's complemented by the next cut, a Sugar Ray original, "Numb And Dumb," that spotlights Baty's intricate guitar licks. Little Charlie also smokes on the up-tempo rocker, "My Next Door Neighbor," a Jerry McCain original with Norcia singing about that guy who wants to borrow everything he owns.

The tone of the album shifts to the jazzier side for the next several cuts, with Robillard tastefully playing guitar on the Mudcat Ward composition, "What I Put You Through." This one's got kind of a Charles Brown vibe, with Norcia's voice taking on a smokier tone. But once again, it's Duke's guitar work that makes this one a gem. "What Will Becomes Of Me," written by Otis Spann, slows the tempo even more, with Geraci leading the way on piano while Norcia's vocals evoke memories of Johnny Adams while Baty slips in a wonderfully subtle guitar solo. This one goes on for over seven minutes but never gets boring.

The classic "I Got A Right To Sing The Blues" keeps us in that late-night jazzy frame of mind, with Robillard framing this mid-tempo classic with a very nice, understated guitar solo. Switching back to more of a basic blues shuffle is "From The Horses Mouth," a Geraci-penned tune on which he contributes more killer keyboards, before the band returns to their after-hours frame of mind on a Ward original, "The Night I Got Pulled Over." While Geraci lays down the appropriate jazzy piano soundtrack, Norcia talks about the night he was wrongly profiled and pulled over by a policeman merely for 'driving while blue.'

Norcia introduces the next tune, "Walk Me Home," with strong harp blowing on a mid-tempo blues shuffle before giving Geraci a chance to lay down a burning hot piano solo while Baty also gets one more chance for some nice, easy guitar. Closing the album is an alternate version of the harmonica instrumental, "Reel Burner," still good enough that it won't be redundant to the earlier rendition.

There are a lot of reasons why this album should be in your shopping cart as soon as it's available, but one more chance to hear the great guitar of Little Charlie should seal the deal for you. Too Far From The Bar is a strong contender for blues album of the year, and comes highly recommended.

--- Bill Mitchell


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