It's perhaps a little early in the year to start assembling a Top Ten list of best CDs for 2003. But I'm going to assume that there won't be ten better discs this year than Junior Watson's If I Had A Genie (Heart & Soul Records). The California guitarist's latest release is a winner from start to finish, with Watson and band romping through 14 excellent cuts.
The only factor that could keep If I Had A Genie off the 2003 list is that the disc was actually released in November of 2002. But since no one on the Blues Bytes staff had a copy until recently, we're not going to let a little technicality get in the way of raving about this hot little number.
While always heralded as one of the best axe men around, Watson displays surprising skills as a lead vocalist, handling the singing chores on the entire album. Also making this disc so successful is the presence of saxophonist Barron Shul --- this cat is just plain hot with his horn! Rounding out the combo is Watson's regular rhythm section of bassist Kedar Roy and drummer Jimmy Mulleniux, while pianist Gene Taylor, formerly of the Blasters, and guitarist Nick Curran make guest appearances.
What separates If I Had A Genie from many other contemporary blues recordings is the fact that most of the songs are done in a more vintage blues sound, yet nothing here sounds derivative or dated. Rather than feeling like you're listening to something from the 1940s, you will instead think that you've been transplanted back to that era and are hearing the music for the very first time.
The album kicks off with a taste of the old Excello swamp blues sound, with the band taking a stab at the Lazy Lester tune, "Word About A Woman." Shul immediately makes his presence known with an effective mid-song sax solo.
The title cut is a Johnny Otis-penned gem, a Latin-flavored novelty with another blistering saxophone solo nicely framed by Watson's jump-style vocals and tasteful guitar picking. Continuing the theme of selecting covers of obscure blues songs, Watson puts out a nice version of Boogie Jake's New Orleans raw blues classic, "Early In The Morning."
Watson takes it south of the border for the album's first instrumental, "Two Tacos," a simple little ditty featuring Mexican-style staccato guitar playing. The next instrumental, a shuffle titled "Flappin'," is even better, with Watson, Shul and Taylor all taking turns tearing it up on their respective instruments. A third instrumental, "Spring Roll," comes along later in the album with more of a jazzy beat.
There's nothing better, in my book, at least, than a good slow, late night blues, and Watson does it here as well as anyone. He puts down a dirge-like, yet tasteful version of Pee Wee Clayton's "Blues After Hours" that'll have you swooning across the floor like it's four in the morning and you've had way too much to drink.
He then delivers a wake up call with the New Orleans second line number "Call Everybody Sweetheart," a Snooks Eaglin cover that features Taylor's incendiary piano accompaniment.
Watson again shows his appreciation for a good novelty song, with the stop-time number "Something's Wrong." It's like listening to Louis Jordan, but with a hotter guitar solo.
Taylor gets another shot in the spotlight on the raucous Amos Milburn jump blues number "House Party," playing cool boogie woogie piano over a steady shuffle beat.
Closing it out is an original novelty number, "Strangest Woman," done with a Bo Diddley beat.
Whether you consider If I Had A Genie a 2002 or 2003 release, it really doesn't matter. It would be one of the best new albums from any year. Find it quickly, because you'll want to play it over and over.
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