Kenny Sultan

West Coast Blues

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It's impossible to fault Kenny Sultan's playing on West Coast Blues -- but it's impossible to get worked up about it, either. The man's a superb instrumentalist, certainly on a technical level, with dazzling fingerwork on a cut like "The Sick Boogie," which is all fingers flying around the fretboard, or the impressionistic "Shangri-La," whose blues connection seems tenuous, at best. But there seems to be precious little feel behind the notes. This is the blues as played, not as lived, and that makes for a huge difference. His treatment of "Dust My Broom" hits all the right notes, but it's not Robert Johnson or Elmore James, by any stretch of the imagination. Of course, they couldn't have played with the dexterity that powers "Pony Up" or "State Street Crawl," but they were the real deal. To be fair, Sultan's at his best when he's more thoughtful, dragging out the 12-string for "Cigarette Blues" and "Brown Whiskey Blooze," where the resonance of the strings lets the notes hang. And in calling his album West Coast Blues, he does hang out a shingle about the style, free of any of the regional tics which have always been a trademark of the genre, leaving it clean -- maybe even sterile -- and somewhat homogenized, owing far more to Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson (whose sax lick is the basis of the title cut) than Blind Blake, Charley Patton, or even Muddy Waters. The blues was always about pain, and pain has never been clean or easy. It's down, dirty, and gritty. It's just a shame this album, for all its skill, isn't stoked by those fires.

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