Review: Rockin’ Johnny Band – Grim Reaper

Rockin' Johnny's return to recording fails to register ...
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As a musical genre, the blues sometimes get a bad rep. And as vital and elemental as the form can be, there’s a valid reason why it’s often dismissed as ‘same old same old.’ Rockin' Johnny Band - Johnny Burgin - Grim ReaperIt is, after all, a rather fixed format. And given its relative simplicity, the blues are relatively easy to play – witness countless unimaginative bar bands murdering the same standard set list, night after night, to less-than-memorable effect.

Playing the blues well, though – so that they matter – is another matter entirely.

For a time, Rockin’ Johnny Burgin was a youthful fixture on Chicago’s club scene, gaining  invaluable experience sharing stages with a veritable who’s who of the blues. After a handful of well-received recordings, he disappeared for almost a decade, and Grim Reaper marks his recording comeback. Unfortunately, despite his fine fretwork and solid backing, the disc simply fails to catch fire.

It’s not a lack of material – in addition to a couple of sturdy originals (Burgin exhibits a marked fondness for Otis-Rush-style minor key compositions) the playlist is strong, everything solidly within twelve-bar convention yet avoiding the obvious and overdone. And backing is adequate if workmanlike – no major surprises, just solid, unpretentious accompaniment that consistently avoids excess.

And that’s part of the problem. Blues isn’t given to a great deal of experimentation, and it relies on tension and resolution rather than over-the-top displays of technical proficiency and instrumental razzle-dazzle. But stick too close to tradition – play it the way it’s always been played, by those who, if they haven’t actually forged the genre, have lived it all their lives – and it does all start to sound the same.

‘The same’ isn’t always a bad thing, per se – classics are considered classics for a reason, after all. But to be anything more than imitation or repetition, it’s got to feel as though it matters, as though it’s as still essential as breath itself. Burgin is a supremely talented guitarist, and he knows both what and when to play – he’s savvy enough to leave lots of space, his playing fleet and nimble yet never overdone. Drummer Steve Bass and bassist John Sefner keep it simple and loose, while ‘Big D’ fills in the wholes with unremarkable yet reliable harmonica and Rick Kreher provides typically steady support on rhythm guitar.

But the mix is dull and muddy, and while there’s lots of quiet competence on display, there’s simply nothing in particular that stands out – on the whole, the project errs by being too tasteful, the end result undistinguished and indistinguishable from a thousand other similar recordings. And then there are the vocals – even by the relatively loose standards of the blues, that value honest expression over artifice and affectation, Burgin’s vocals are uninspired and at times downright awful. There’s simply no soul on display, no evidence of passion or pain – instead, song after song is delivered in a flat near-monotone.

The blues remains a powerful form for expressing life’s joys and sorrows, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad. But given both the inherent restrictions of the twelve-bar format and the sheer number of times it’s all been done before, there has to be a spark, a certain something that renders it worth one’s while. Burgin’s an accomplished guitarist, but his respect for the genre, admirable though it may be, fails to light the requisite fire. Sad to say, as a leader he’s a much better sideman …