2000 from SHANACHIE ENTERTAINMENT
"Duke is one of the great guitar players" -- B B KING
"Duke Robillard is almost certainly the world's best living jump-blues guitarist." -- LA WEEKLY
"Only the most committed, passionate and technically astute of the baby boomers and younger players have honest claim on bloodlines with jazz-savvy past blues masters Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker and Wayne Bennett...Duke Robillard asserts his claim to this lineage." -- DOWN BEAT
"What I am," master guitarist Duke Robillard explains, "is a blues-rooted musician who has legitimate influences from other styles."
So it's only natural that Duke's new album Explorer captures him delivering his mix of six-string virtuosity, classic songwriting and gritty vocal elegance in varied settings. There's his acoustic country ballad "Lonesome Old Town," the brassy rocker "Male Magnet," plenty of hard-core R&B like "You Dropped That Thing On Me," the smoky Latin jazz of "You Mean Everything To Me" and a generous helping of the swinging 'n' down-to-the-bone blues that first ignited his career.
Duke sees Explorer as his "next logical step" in music-making after 1 999's New Blues for Modern Man, his Shanachie debut. On that CD Duke conjured all shades of blues, even expanding its boundaries. He dared to use traditional Turkish instruments in a bold re-arrangement of Delta legend Charlie Patton's "Pony Blues" and recorded Bob Dylan's "Love Sick" - a song Duke became smitten with while lending guitar to Dylan's 1997 Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind at the rock poet's personal invitation.
The release of New Blues for Modern Man began a very good year for Duke. He played more than 200 dates; was in-demand as a producer (making albums with Eddie Clearwater, Rosco Gordon and Billy Boy Arnold, and producing Explorer); solidified the gorgeous, flexible sound of his horn section with the return of "Sax" Gordon Beadle; and moved back to his native Rhode Island. Then in May 2000 Duke won the W.C. Handy Award for Blues Guitarist of the Year, captivating the audience at the Blues Foundation's awards ceremony in Memphis with his stellar musicianship.
Duke rightly believes that all of this amounts to a break-through, a true connection with his audience. "At this point I've gone through almost my whole career with people expecting me to do exactly what i did with Roomful," he explains. "Instead, I've been developing my interests and putting out rock 'n' roll and jazz albums as well as blues. It's confused people for a number of years, but I think that now they understand where I'm coming from.
"For example, many people don't think I play acoustic guitar. But I do, and a song like 'Lonesome Town' is natural for me. I grew up listening to Hank Williams. My uncle played in a country band. And living in Rhode Island, I went to the Newport Folk Festival and heard lots of performers. For me, country, jazz, whatever I play- it's all part of the blues-related sound that is truly the basis for American music."
The title Explorer does more than reflect the diversity of Duke's new album and life-long musical passions. It's also the model of guitar he's holding on the CD's cover, a space-age-looking Gibson originally introduced in the '50s that's recently caught his fancy. "The thing about these guitars is they're made of korina wood,' Duke relates. "Because korina is a very soft wood that lends itself to a warm sound, I can play a jazz tune on it - even though it looks odd because the Explorer's considered mostly a heavy-rock guitar - then play a heavy blues tune and it really rocks! It's an all-purpose instrument for me.
"To me, the album's title ties together my relationship with this instrument and the idea that I'm exploring new directions with the band."
Of course, Explorer also offers plenty of Duke's signature sounds. Listen to the Hammond B-3 organ-colored ballad "Time Is Short," written by Duke's friend and Eric Clapton's harmonica player Jerry Portnoy. "It's a perfect vehicle for me," Duke says. "It's in that jazzy style of blues that's one of the most natural things I do. It sounds like the records I listened to when I was young. Like Jimmy Witherspoon albums, with jazz guys playing blues." Then there's the curled-lip singing and stinging guitar that breathes nasty fire into "Soulful," a burning Texas-blues work-out that recalls Duke's years in the Fabulous Thunderbird.
Duke enjoys the familiarity of tunes like these. "I keep looking ahead with my music, but returning to the styles that I love is always a lot of fun," he says. In fact, one of the joys of hearing Robillard and his band live is that it's like taking a tour through his epic career. There's snatches of the horn-and-guitar swing he perfected leading Roomful of Blues from 1967 to '80, the gut-bucket blues and elegant jazz of his early solo years, snatches of inspiration gleaned from working with the likes of Ruth Brown, Jay McShann, Johnny Adams, Doc Pomus, Pinetop Perkins and other legendary figures, and his more recent...well...explorations.
"I've decided that I've got to do what I'm doing now because there are so many blues albums today that are merely repetitions of the past," Duke offers. "That's why it's important to come up with interesting twists. When you sit down to listen to me, I want to give you some surprises."