New Orleans institution Bryan Lee - though originally from Wisconsin, he's spent enough years on Bourbon Street to qualify as a fixture - would seem to be a producer's dream, flexible enough to adapt to any setting and convey any mood.
Lee's last outing, produced by Duke Robillard and featuring Duke's band in the background, found him swinging hard through a collection weighted toward jump blues and rollicking rock 'n' roll.
On Play One For Me, his debut on Severn Records, he alternates between slinky, uptown blues and shimmery Memphis soul, the kind that's become something of a signature sound for the Maryland-based label.
No surprise, that, given Severn honcho David Earl and his ace team produced, and most members of the band have worked in the studio before. On hand are Fabulous Thunderbirds Johnny Moeller (guitars) and the great Kim Wilson on harmonica. (The T-Birds' latest, too, was recorded at Severn, with the label's sound an audible influence there as well). The rhythm section - Kevin Aker, Rob Stupka, and Steve Gomes - are house veterans, and once again Willie Henderson works his magic with horn and string sections.
To his credit, though, Lee always sounds firmly in control of proceedings, his gruff-yet-somehow-boyish vocals authoritative and his stinging guitar prominent throughout. He's an expressive singer, unafraid to ham it up a bit on occasion, and his fretwork, while always economical, never fails to get the point across.
Most of the covers are stacked toward the beginning, including the sweetly soulful "Aretha (Play One For Me," the cool-blues vibe of Freddie King's "It's Too Bad (Things Are Going So Tough)," and the string-heavy, atmospheric "When Love Begins (Friendship Ends)." Willie Dixon's "Evil Is Going On," with Wilson adding squalling harp, before it's back-to-the-brackets with Lee's first composition, the funky "You Was My Baby (But You Ain't My baby No More)."
The formula carries on through the backstretch, burbling soul-funk alternating with tough twelve-bars; "Let Me Love You Tonight" sounds a lot like Tyrone Davis' old hit, "Can I Change My Mind," while Lee employs downright dangerous sounding vocal distortion on the stark twelve-bar blues of "Poison." The closing track, "Sixty-Eight Years Young," is a party-hearty celebration of life, an affirmative anthem that shows Lee is still young at heart indeed.
Lee may be a bit of a musical chameleon, but the results are always interesting. Play One For Me, with strong material and top-notch performances, is a bit of a departure but is arguably his best yet. Recommended!