Duke Robillard - Independently Blue

Robillard's latest is a bit of a mixed bag
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The ever-prolific Duke Robillard typically veers from themed collections - whether collaborations, tributes, or periodic 'back to the blues' outings - to more eclectic outings that find him exploring his various musical interests and influences.

Independently Blue, Robillard's 30th recording as leader (he has far too many sideman and producer credits to count), falls somewhere in the middle.  Everything's rooted in blues, but Duke and friends - this time including guitarist Monster Mike Welch in addition to Robillard's regular band - are doggedly determined to find the freshness in it all rather than simply reheat things yet again.

Robillard's taste as an instrumentalist is unassailable; he's a guitarist's guitarist, endlessly inventive and able to swing at any tempo.  His execution is flawless, fleet and supple, and the band, together for a number of years now, is as good as they come; Bruce Bears on keys (piano and Hammond B3), drummer Mark Teixeira, and bassist Brad Hallen operating as a single, intuitive entity.  Welch, who rose to prominence as something of a prodigy, has always played with a maturity well beyond his years, and his sharper edge is an ideal foil to Robillard's warmer, jazzier tone.

Robillard wrote much of the material this time out, turning to his old friend Al Basile (the two worked together in Roomful Of Blues) for a pair as well as a co-write.  It's a decidedly mixed bag - Basile's "I Wouldn't-a Done That", and "Below Zero," the co-written track, kick things off strongly enough, both riding solid, chunky blues grooves and featuring Basile's clever lyrics.  Robillard's "Laurene" is a flat-out rocker marred by his typically mannered and overly-labored vocals.  "Moongate" fares a bit better in the vocal department, but as atmospheric as it is, there's not quite enough happening to sustain interest for almost six minutes.  And then there's the utterly awful "You Won't Ever," a breezy pop number with incongruous trumpet and cheesy synthesized strings. It may well be heartfelt but it's unforgivably trite and absolutely excruciating.  Better are "Groovin' Slow" and "If This is Love," the two tunes from Robillard that complete the collection, both featuring excellent guitar work from Welch.

Indeed, it's Welch who's responsible for most of the fireworks.  He contributes two instrumentals, the driving "Stapled To The Chicken's Back" and the leisurely "This Man, This Monster."  Both find the two guitarists trading off, Robillard smooth and elegant while Welch coaxes a bit more excitement from the strings.  Robillard also contributes an instrumental, the self-explanatory "Strollin' With Lowell And BB," and the playlist is rounded out with a raucous New Orleans-flavored cover of "Patrol Wagon Blues," with trumpet and clarinet to add authenticity.

Robillard is widely regarded as one of the finest guitarists ever to navigate a fretboard.  He founded the aforementioned Roomful Of Blues, worked with The Fabulous Thunderbirds, toured with Tom Waits, and is about to embark on a new phase of his career as Bob Dylan's guitarist.  His vocals have always been more a matter of taste, though - he's never seemed a natural singer, relying on forceful phrasing that often seems labored and contrived.  It tends to work better on the blues numbers, where vocals tend to the declamatory anyway - the more melodic numbers all too often seem awkward.

As guitarist and as a producer who's reinvigorated the career of many an all-but-forgotten legend (including Jay McShann, Roscoe Gordon, and Billy Boy Arnold), Robillard has earned his place in the upper echelon.  Apart from "You Won't Ever" - the only truly serious lapse in taste here - this is another fine addition to his discography.  One wishes, though, that Robillard would recognize his limitations as a singer and add some vocal variety next time out.