As a bluesman, Robert 'Top' Thomas has a solid background and impressive credentials. He's been grinding out swamp-blues in his native Florida for years, touring and recording with the likes of Noble 'Thin Man' Watts, Lazy Lester, and Bill 'Sauce Boss' Wharton in addition to helping found SmokeHouse, a band that helped define the swampy sound mixed with hints of the Delta that's pervasive throughout The Town Crier.
Lazy Lester in particular seems a profound influence - in addition to a note of thanks in the liner notes, Thomas covers Lester's "The Same Thing Could Happen To You," the only tune among the collection's thirteen tracks not written specifically for the project. And he does it uncannily like Lester, right down to the drawling, laconic vocals.
Elsewhere, though, Thomas has his own gruff growl of a voice which, while not particularly versatile, serves his songs well indeed. With the exception of the aforementioned, most of the tunes were written or co-written by participants, including Thomas himself, bassist Steven Dees (whose name appears most often and who also produced the project) and Victor Wainwright, who contributes keys throughout along with a co-lead vocal. There are four harmonica players involved, with band member Stephen Kampa doing the bulk of the work, and bits of sax and accordion here and there for atmosphere.
Thomas' music, though, is focused on the songs, and solos are generally short and sweet. The grooves are as deep and thick as bayou mud (Dees and drummer Billy Dean are an excellent rhythm section), and there are equal amounts of dirt and distortion to maintain an appropriately swampy mood.
Most of the songs are solid compositions, though the title track's weepy vocal might be a matter of taste, and the admittedly well-intentioned "What's The Matter Ma" is mercifully brief. They're the only iffy moments, though, and in general Thomas, who's no slouch on guitar, gets by through the sheer likeability of his unpolished but unabashedly honest vocals. He's earthy and gritty and he can effect dangerous when it's called for, but somehow he always sounds like a guy you'd like to have a beer with.
There are lots of high-gloss productions out there that sound perfect, and perfectly sterile, and even more indie recordings where the quality simply doesn't measure up. Thomas' The Town Crier strikes just the right balance - excellent production, top-notch performances, and lots of personality - an absolutely essential, if often overlooked, ingredient in the blues. Definitely worth checking out ...