Al Lerman is a musical journeyman in the finest sense. A founding member of Fathead, one of Canada’s premier blues and funk outfits, he’s an experienced performer and an accomplished songwriter, equally adept on harmonica, guitar, and saxophone. As a sideman for hire, he’s worked with a veritable who’s who of Canadian blues legends; here he’s backed by a few of the finest, including bassist / producer extraordinaire Alec Fraser and drummer Bucky Berger, with Lance Anderson contributing keys and accordion.
Lerman claims he never thought to put out a solo album until he found himself playing more and more solo gigs, with fans asking for something to take away from the show. Hence Crowe River Blues, named for a river near the rural retreat where he’s lived for a few years now. Lerman wrote all but three of the tracks, with covers including the bouncy “Suitcase Blues,” credited to members of the late Hollywood Fats Band, Snooky Pryor’s “Judgment Day,” and the irresistibly catchy “Nobody But Myself To Blame.”
Lerman’s compositions are, for the most part, quietly unassuming mini-masterpieces, whether it’s the contemplative “Gypsy Feet,” an evocative exploration of the yearning need to roam, or the sheer inventiveness of “Chugging The Blues,” an absolutely revelatory harmonica tour-de-force with Lerman playing no less than four harps, accompanied only by Fraser’s minimalist percussion. (While a little harmonica typically goes a long way, Lerman is an absolute master, able to fully exploit the instrument’s relatively limited palette to breathtaking effect). He gets my vote for song title of the year for the easy-going “Blues So Bad I Could Write A Country Song,” while “I’m Gone” sounds swampy thanks to Lerman’s shimmering electric guitar and distant, vaguely menacing percussion. The Big Easy rhythms of “Flush Side Of Broke” are enhanced by some nice accordion from Anderson, and “Indifference” is a rollicking shuffle with a catchy chorus and sparkling piano. “She Calls Me River,” though obviously heartfelt, is a bit underwhelming lyrically, and “Solar Powered Man” tries a little too hard for clever wordplay, but they’re the disc’s only weaker moments, and both are redeemed by winning performances.
Lerman isn’t blessed with the growly, authoritative voice typical of most blues singers, but he’s wily enough to use what he’s got to maximum effect; while his voice is a bit thin at times, he sings well indeed, with a natural, unforced delivery that suits the material nicely, and for the most part gets by on sheer likeability. His guitar work – both electric and acoustic, with lots of both in the mix - is first rate throughout, as are contributions from the supporting cast, all well-seasoned pros who know exactly what each tune calls for.
There’s not a lot of sax to be found, but it’s on the ‘Mississippi saxophone’ that Lerman truly excels anyway. The instrumentals – the aforementioned “Chugging” along with “Harmonica Gumbo,” a New Orleans-flavored harp workout – are both about tone and taste rather than dazzling virtuosity, and Lerman plays with the restrained lyrical sensibility of a singer, his solos carefully crafted to communicate rather than impress. Impressive he is, though, as he explores and manipulates the humble harmonica in endlessly inventive and invariably intriguing ways.
Production, too, is absolutely top-notch; both Fraser and Anderson are veteran performers and producers, the former with his own studio and the latter with his own label, and Berger’s no stranger to recording. It’s a bit of a dream team, every note tempered by experience yet delivered with undiminished energy and enthusiasm, and Lerman has clearly taken the time to get things right – despite being his solo debut, this is the work of a mature and thoughtful artist.
Lerman has a winner here – highly recommended!