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February 1999

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Li'l Ronnie and the Grand Dukes
"Too Fast For Conditions"
Planetary Records

Lil Ronnie and the Grand DukesA real find this month comes out of Richmond, Virginia in the form of the new CD "Too Fast For Conditions" from Li'l Ronnie and the Grand Dukes. This  tight blues ensemble, fronted by the strong vocals of Li'l Ronnie Owens and punctuated by the stellar guitar work of Ivan Appelrouth and keyboards from Kevin McKendree, ably mixes a jumpin' blues style with a taste of the Louisiana swamp --- kind of like if Louis Jordan and Slim Harpo had teamed up at some point in their careers.

The opening cut is a jump blues cover of "Cross Eyed Suzie Lee," featuring nice guitar solos by guest Pete Kanaras. This number right away shows us Li'l Ronnie's strength as a vocalist. But then he gets to show off his harmonica work on the next tune, the swamp-sounding original "Too Fast For Conditions." The flow between these two styles is seamless to the listener.

Regular guitarist Ivan Appelrouth, who has been wowing East Coast blues audiences in relative anonymity for nearly two decades, finally gets a chance to show his stuff on the slow blues "I Found My Baby." Appelrouth later solos on the band original "T-Bonin' Part I," a tribute to T-Bone Walker. If I didn't know better, I'd swear someone snuck an old T-Bone Capitol recording onto the master disc.

Another strong original, "Bettin' On My Baby," is a mid-tempo blues shuffle, on which Owens and Appelrouth both get to solo on their respective instruments. This one's also got some creative lyrics, like "...I love you, baby, like a gambler loves the track..."

Pianist McKendree kicks off another Louisiana-flavored original, "Blame It On Me," with a Professor Longhair-style intro, then Owens comes in with a bit of Lazy Lester-sounding harmonica work. The horn section and Appelrouth's inventive guitar solo spice up the works even more here. Great!

"My Aching Head," an Appelrouth original, sounds like it could have come from the Huey "Piano" Smith songbook, especially when McKendree solos on piano and Chris Watling adds that fat New Orleans baritone sax sound.

"Too Fast For Conditions" closes with a tasteful instrumental version of Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," with Owens taking the lead on harmonica. Nice, especially with the mid-song tempo change.

This album might be a little harder to find outside of Richmond, but certainly worth the effort to track down. If all else fails, check out Planetary Records' web site.

--- Bill Mitchell

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