Raoul Bhaneja is a busy man indeed. An accomplished actor who's toured his own one-man Hamlet in addition to amassing numerous television credits, he also fronts The Big Time, a tight and agile combo of Canadian veterans able to switch with unerring ease from upbeat swing to down-in-the-alley grinders.
Bhaneja has somehow also found time to write songs and absolutely master the harmonica, both the growly, honking diatonic and the richly chorded chromatic, as evidenced throughout the aptly-titled Hollywood Blvd.
There's also the matter of the guest list. Bhaneja, a harmonicist of dazzling facility, has made a few friends on his musical journeys. On hand for five tracks are a band consisting of guitarist Junior Watson, bassist Larry Taylor, drummer Richard Innes, and pianist Fred Kaplan - alumnae all of the late, great Hollywood Fats Band. Three tracks feature another band entirely, with Rick Holmstrom on guitar, Jeff Turmes on bass, and Stephen Hodges on drums. And if that weren't enough, guitarist Rusty Zinn joins The Big Time on one, soul master Curtis Salgado drops by for another, and Johnny Sansone adds accordion to a wistful "In The Pines," a traditional with a few modern touches that ends proceedings.
It's heady company, to be sure, but Bhaneja is thoroughly at ease up front, his vocals relaxed and assured. He doesn't have the room-shaking pipes of a blues shouter, but his theatrical talent is manifest in the many styles he employs, subtly altering his delivery to suit each tune with cool composure. And while the guitar work throughout varies from impeccable to utterly brilliant, instrumentally it's Bhaneja's harmonica that predominates. Four instrumentals allow him to strut his stuff, and whether it's the slinky funk of the title track, the chromatic jump of "Amphetamine", the breezy acoustic-harmonica bounce of "Left Coast Fred," or "Curtis Charm," a two-harp workout that finds him trading licks with Salgado, he finds the perfect tone for each tune. His solos are succinct but invariably inventive, and he also understands the art of understated accompaniment.
There's lots of variety, from the rootsy, modern-traditional "Nothin' Gonna Take Me Down" to the straightforward Chicago shuffle of "High Roller," from the lazy New Orleans funk of Allen Toussaint's "Get Out Of My Life Woman" to Pop Staples' protest-era standard, "Why Am I Treated So Bad," featuring Zinn's shimmery-groovy guitar. "Tired" is a moody, minor key mini-masterpiece, while "Spoken For" is bouncy West-coast jump.
Whatever the style, Bhaneja's original compositions stand up to the standards, and performances by all involved are top-notch throughout. Everything was recorded off-the-floor in Toronto and Burbank, with few overdubs, giving the project an agreeably live and lively feel.
An excellent effort in every way, Hollywood Blvd is very highly recommended.