Ronnie Shellist's 'Til Then has strong roots in the traditional Chicago style and there's a great texture to the sonic architecture of the album, something missing in too many modern recordings. The album was cut in one day without myriad overdubs, the sound hasn't been compressed to hell and back, and the volume is just right.
The album carves out a nice place for itself, not ignoring the foundation built and perfected by the greats who came before, but Shellist isn't content offering up a bunch of songs built on Willie Dixon's stop-time riffs or the same tired chord progressions so many current would-be blues artists still rely on when "creating" their sound.
Beyond the production and sound, Shellist rounded up an excellent cast of musicians to back him on his debut: multi-instrumentalist Gerry Hundt (himself an outstanding harp player) and drummer Bob Carter (both former sidemen for Nick Moss) as well as Todd Edmunds and Jeremy Vasquez. They provide essential foundation for Shellist throughout the record, comprised of 10 originals as well as covers of Little Walter's "Last Night" and Sonny Boy Williamson's "Eyesight To The Blind."
"Bad News" is a slow blues that plays a bit like Stevie Ray Vaughan's version of Elmore James' "The Sky is Crying." Vazquez delivers fluid lead guitar lines and Shellist makes his harmonica weep. "Mook" is a great instrumental jam played over a shuffling rhythm. It allows Shellist to play some extended harp leads and also gives plenty of room for his two talented guitarists some time out front as well. "One Day" is another smoldering highlight.
"Found You" has a funky groove, anchored by Carter and Edmunds and serves as another change of pace for the record. "Evil Woman" also percolates with a bit of easy funk and a great guitar solo from Hundt. The sound of Shellist's harp during one of his solo reminds me of the sound of Stevie Wonder's on "Isn't She Lovely?" The solos aren't similar, mind you, just the sound and I'm positive it existed long before but I guess I'm showing my age here a bit; I remember listening to that Wonder classic on AM radio in the car with my mom and it will always be my point of reference when I hear a harmonica make that sound.
Little Walter and Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) are obvious choices for any harp player when choosing cover material and Shellist's "Last Night" stays very true to Walter's original but they turn "Eyesight To The Blind" on its head a bit, allowing Hundt to break out his mandolin. The classic versions reign supreme but these are quite good and fit well on the record.
'til Then is a highly recommended listen and an early candidate for Best New Artist Debut at next year's Blues Music Awards. Ronnie Shellist has arrived and he's one to watch.