Duke Robillard is among the most accomplished and prolific of bluesmen on the circuit today. He has released an album a year for the past four years going back to 2009 with Stomp! The Blues Tonight, Passport To The Blues (2010), Low Down & Tore Up (2011), a jazz trio record called Wobble Walkin last year, and this year's Independently Blue.
That much output could be a problem for lesser talents but Duke Robillard is no lesser talent. I wasn't crazy about some aspects of Stomp and have yet to hear Wobble but can vouch for the excellence of Passport and Low Down. Robillard has reached a stage in his career where even when he challenges himself, you have a pretty good idea what you're going to get from him. He can still reach the heights and rarely sinks into the valleys but most of the time you get a solid, well-crafted record with few surprises and that's what we have with Independently Blue.
Robillard is backed by many of the musicians who've taken part in recent efforts but brings in "Monster" Mike Welch, an outstanding guitar player, to guest on a few tracks. He mixes up the material by reaching into different eras and mining various fractals of blues and roots music for inspiration yet it still adds up to what you'd expect, no more, no less.
The Welch-penned instrumental "Stapled To The Chicken's Back" is one of album highlights as he and Robillard trade spirited solos over a nice shuffle from the band complete with grand organ accents from Bruce Bears. "Moongate," a Robillard original, is another standout. The instruments are bathed in murky, atmospheric production and intricate layers of guitar blend and clash.
Among Robillard's most impressive skills as a guitarist is his ability to speak the language of other players without simply copping their licks. He inhabits B.B. King and Lowell Fulsom (the latter too obscure relative to the merits of his career) on the instrumental "Strollin' With Lowell And BB," and the song does just that. It's a loving tribute to two influential players and Robillard masterfully marries their style and walks them hand-in-hand on this brief number. He closes the album on a high, returning to his own guitar style on "If This Is Love." The remainder of the record falls into the category of tuneful filler, pleasant yet lacking.
Robillard is about to take a break from his solo career to join forces with Bob Dylan on his never-ending tour. It will be interesting to see if time away and time playing with Dylan will have an impact on what Duke does next. Until then, Independently Blue has enough strength to keep fans satisfied until his return but may not be the first Robillard record they reach for during this hiatus.