Sugar Blue

Threshold

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Over his lengthy career going back to a stint with the Rolling Stones, it's hard to believe this is only Sugar Blue's sixth recording. It's a very good one, though, and if anything is worth waiting for, his first-rate, virtuoso harmonica playing always satisfies the true blues connoisseur in the attack and fluid lines he doles out. He's never received enough credit as a singer, with a clean, soulful, near crooner's delivery that appeals to young and old, male and female. This set of originals does at times stray into pop music, but that has always been Blue's style. His themes are more diverse than most love/not love lyrics, from everyman's blues to holiday or protest songs, tributes to heroes, and even a classic interpretation or two. He wrote or co-wrote most all of the tunes, save Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller's "Trouble" (in a Chicago-style blues funk) and the stern "Don't Call Me," adding "don't text me" to the lyric of this slow pop tune. At his best, Blue is wailing on his harp during the long and loose "Ramblin'," where he layers his instrument through overdubbing, does a great "Messin' with the Kid" in a mean, funky context, and plays "Cotton Time" in a smoother vein for blues legend James Cotton. The New Orleans shuffle "Noel News" in reference to Christmas Eve, "Nightmare" in a lonely man/bad woman scenario, and the cool "Average Guy" add good contrast, the latter tune talking about how normal dudes understand the blues too. Sound of birds and guns introduce "Stop the War," an unexpected song of dissent that stands out not only for its sentiment different than the other tracks talking about "murder in the first degree," but the rock & roll and funk beat that Blue adopts. Guitarist Rico McFarland is in on this, and he's excellent throughout, while second guitarist Motoaki Makino, keyboardist Damiano Della Torre, and drummer James Knowles keep the music cool and even-keeled, never boiling over. The last track is a rather poorly recorded interview segment where the leader talks about the other instruments he has tried out before, as he says "the harmonica chose me." Sugar Blue has never been fully or properly hailed as the complete, talented, soulful blues man he is, but this recording further punctuates his validity and uniqueness -- you know it's him from the first five seconds. You will also know you'll like this recorded effort just as quickly.

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