1999 from SHANACHIE ENTERTAINMENT
"To me, an album is something special that should last forever," guitar great Duke Robillard explains. "I think the market is continually flooded with mundane versions of reconstituted blues. So when I was making New Blues for Modern Man, I knew something about it had to be different and interesting in order for it to be special, in order for it to exist."
Indeed, Robillard's 13th solo album - his first for Shanachie - may prove to be his most enduring blues masterwork. New Blues for Modern Man runs the gamut from Duke's compelling re-arrangement of Charlie Patton's "Pony Blues" to his own rocking '50s-flavored shuffle "How Long Baby" to the instrumental finalé "Big Bottom Blues."
"This is definitely a real blues album," says Robillard, whose versatile guitar wizardry has spanned the worlds of rock 'n' roll, jazz, rhythm & Blues, and swing since he began performing with the magnificent big band Roomful of Blues in 1967.
Robillard founded Roomful and left after 13 years to venture on his own. While making solo albums and touring the world, Duke's also been a member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Legendary Blues Band. And he's played on albums by Bob Dylan (1997's Grammy-winning Time Out Of Mind), Ruth Brown ('97's Handy-winning R+B=Ruth Brown), Johnny Adams, Kim Wilson, Sax Gordon Beadle, Jay McShann, Joe Beard, Pinetop Perkins, John Hammond, Jimmy Witherspoon, Snooky Pryor, Jerry Portnoy, Ronnie Earl and many more.
Duke's become an in-demand producer, too. Last year he helmed Eddy Clearwater's Handy-nominated Cool Blues Walk and produced soon-to-be-released CDs by Jay McShann, Sax Gordon, and Edmonton, Alberta's Rockin' Highliners, among others.
"It's enlightening to produce and play guitar on other people's albums," Robillard attests. "The way songs sound on records has always been a big thing for me, ever since I started listening to '50s R&B. Now that I'm producing I've learned to get the sounds I hear in my head quickly. Knowing how to get a really good sound in a short amount of time is important, because I believe that American roots music - which is essentially what I do - needs to be recorded that way. This music doesn't need to be fabricated in the studio. There has to be a solid live backbone for everything."
The immediacy of live-in-the-studio recording is one of the thrills of New Blues for Modern Man. "Most of the songs were one -or two- takes. Then we did some overdubbing for a couple of them," Duke recounts. "Most of the guitar solos are live, too. I meant them to be a reference, but I realized there was no way to duplicate the feel of the band following me. That would have taken away from the overall sound of the album."
Which is delightful - right from the vigorous opener "Jumpin' Rockin' Rhythm." That number unfurls Duke's guitar, Doug James' baritone sax and Tom West's piano in an unabashed celebration of the joys of early, blues-based Chuck Berry-style rock 'n' roll.
Nest up is Robillard's epic re-invention of Charlie Patton's "Pony Blues." His arrangement transforms the song from a country blues into a rollicking world-music celebration. Duke's slide guitar harmonizes with his skillful horn section to produce a mile-wide sound that simmers over Duke's rhythm track, played on a 1920s parlor guitar, and gets garnished by a lavish sprinkling of Dukes' mandolin and cumbus (a sitar-like Turkish instrument).
"Don't Fool With My Love" is one of several tunes that seem to bear the influence of Duke's late friend and mentor Doc Pomus, the R&B and early rock songwriting legend. Robillard tears loose a set of rippling, prickly-toned solos on his Stratocaster that recall his fiery fretwork with the Thunderbirds. And Robillard's version of Bob Dylan's "Love Sick" is a shadowy masterpiece.
"When I was playing on Bob's album, that song really hit me," Robillard explains. "It was dark and brooding and bluesy; not in a traditional sense, but in its mood. Our version's little touches like the mallets on the drums, Dennis Taylor's sax accents traveling through the whole song, the sound of my guitar..." It's simply beautiful.
For Duke, New Blues for Modern Man is a musical pleasure. "I'd played with this band line-up for a year when we recorded. And producing others gives me such insight in producing my own music that I think I really captured the essence of the songs and the band on these tunes," he offers. "I've never quite got it all to mesh like I did this time."
The same could be said for every aspect of Robillard's creative life right now. The CD jacket of New Blues for Modern Man displays Robillard's excellent photography. He took its elegant portraits of his band.
"I've done a lot of music photos and street scenes, especially in Europe, for the past nine years," Duke says. More recently he has taken up oils and brushes, and is painting a piece for the cover of a new CD he's recording with jazz legend Herb Ellis.
"Right now I'm living just to create things, as far as my music or anything else I do is concerned," Robillard cheerfully states. "I turned 50 last year, and I think I've reached a certain level of maturity. I'm comfortable that my career is going to last. In face, it's probably going forward more than ever. And I've developed a new confidence that if I want to do anything...well, I can do it! Especially in my music. I don't worry about being competitive or fitting into the marketplace. I just think about pure expression, and that's so much more satisfying."