Hardcore blues fans might have noticed harpist Matthew Skoller's name in the backup band credits for artists such as Koko Taylor, Bernard Allison, Larry Garner, and John Primer, but unless you're a resident of Chicago, it's unlikely his work is familiar to you. Weekly gigs in the Windy City have sharpened Skoller's edge, and on his third indie album These Kind of Blues! he proves what blues musicians have known for years: he's ready for the major leagues. Like Charlie Musselwhite, he's pushing the blues borders, even into rap on the G. Love-styled remix of "Handful of People," a song available in two versions. There are echoes of Paul Butterfield's thick, gutsy, amplified sound in Skoller's tone, as well as masters like James Cotton and Little Walter. His songs also traffic in edgier areas than those more closely associated with the blues, as with the politically charged "Handful of People," and the philosophical musings of "Let the World Come to You." The latter track is enhanced by soulful backing vocals and even Brian Ritchie's shakuhachi, not a typical blues instrument. The link to Chicago's fertile harp masters is emphasized by the appearance of guitarist Lurrie Bell, the son of legendary harmonica player Carey Bell. Skoller's vocals are husky and assured, bending around the lyrics and his rugged harp attack. Unlike many bandleaders, Skoller never overdoes his solos, bursting into songs with confidence and pulling out before the listener has fully absorbed his monstrous sound. In fact, there are times when you wish he would further emphasize his intense playing. A grinding, melancholy cover of James Cotton's "Down at Your Buryin'," one of only three covers, is a showstopping album high point, revealing his band's restraint, a terrific slow burn lead from Bell, and Skoller's masterful touch. It's only one highlight from a talented contemporary blues artist who respects his roots but isn't afraid to push the genre's boundaries.
These Kind of Blues! Review
by Hal Horowitz