Billy Branch & the Sons of Blues / Billy Branch

Roots and Branches: The Songs of Little Walter

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Billy Branch earned the throne of king of Chicago Blues harp during the last quarter of the 20th Century, then held it during the first decades of the new millennium. One of the keys to his enduring success is how he didn't merely keep traditions alive, he made sure to blend in elements of funk and soul into Chicago blues, a trick that brought new audiences into the fold while helping the music breathe. In this light, the 2019 album Roots And Branches: The Songs Of Little Walter-recorded with the Sons Of Blues, as nearly all of his albums are-doesn't seem quite so obvious as it might initially appear. Little Walter's influence on Chicago blues in general and harmonicaists in particular is immense, so a tribute album doesn't seem necessarily necessary, yet Branch knows that traditions are kept alive through revivals. The canny thing he and Sons Of Blues do on Roots And Branches is not serve up re-creations of old Chess sides. Sometimes, they do pack an earthy wallop-there may be no other way to deliver "Boom Boom Out Go The Lights"-but there are plenty of sly surprises in the arrangements. "Juke" glides by on a funky rhythm, "My Babe" opens up the gospel vamp so it veers into jazz, "Mellow Down Easy" swings hard and "Blues With A Feeling" has an elasticity to its arrangement that allows the entire band to shine. By changing up the classics, Branch and Sons Of Blues have space to bear down hard on some chestnuts, and the combination winds up not only illustrating the endurance of the Little Walter songbook but the resiliency of Chicago blues itself.

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