The plight of guitarist DUKE ROBILLARD is sadly typical of the many spurned specters haunting the American pop-culture landscape.
Here you have a wholly masterful musician whose work anticipated a major musical trend and who strutted his stuff better than just about anyone else in the game, but he slurped no gravy from the train once it finally arrived at the station, neither in terms of popular acclaim nor financial reward. Robillard was playing swing with a degree of skill and exuberance so far above the level of the pop poseur neo-zooters (and doing so years before it became so very "money") that they ought to have been paying him for the honor of licking the sweat from his guitar strap. Yet Robillard's name is never even mentioned among the swing-scene revivalists, and he's been bouncing around from label to label (mostly smallish indies) for years. Humbug!
Robillard came to the fore as a member of New England's jump powerhouse Roomful of Blues and later as a brief replacement for Jimmie Vaughan in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, but his solo records stand as his most important legacy. He's a fine blues guitarist, at home in any number of styles but particularly adept at T-Bone Walkeresque urban cool. For all of his contributions to the blues, though, Robillard's true strength and his most amazing work have been in Charlie Christian-rooted jazz and swing. Years before anyone had been subjected to the loathsome pox of Daddy bands, Robillard was releasing deliciously danceable discs that showcased not only his expertise at recapturing the vibe of the era but also his ingrained instincts for smart improvisation, fat 'n' smooth tones, and top-shelf musicianship with albums like 1988's Swing and 1990's After Hours Swing Session. He has kept that tradition going with more recent releases, such as 1997's Duke Robillard Plays Jazz and 1999's Conversations in Swing Guitar, between only marginally less-worthy blues projects. I don't know what sort of material will be on Robillard's soon-to-be released new CD, Explorer, but check out Sir Duke on Thursday, June 15, at the Blue Cafe and experience one of America's great underrated guitar gods in action.
JIMMY THACKERY, who plays the Blue Cafe on Saturday night, is another guy you don't hear a lot about. For years, he's been humbly recording choice albums for Blind Pig Records, and while he's not quite in a league with Robillard as a musician and is far less eclectic, Thackery is a rock-solid, blue-collar blues singer and guitarist. His gruff-but-reedy vocals sometimes recall Lonnie Brooks, and his tuff 'n' meaty guitar work in both slide and standard styles possesses equal amounts of soul and muscle. While he's not above recording a few covers here and there—his version of Hendrix's "Still Raining Still Dreaming," from his most recent CD, Switching Gears, is particularly cool—Thackery writes most of his own material, and he's not a player you generally hear resorting to clichs. Heartfelt, earnest, talented and dedicated, Thackery is a no-frills, working-man's blues musician who keeps on keepin' on, oblivious to popular trends, brawny and reliable as an old Chevy, just the kind of guy who keeps blues clubs around the country in business on a day-to-day basis. Bless his scrawny white ass.
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STAN RIDGWAY is a guy I've always found quite interesting, even as his fondness for synthesizers and electronic effects have sometimes left me cold. The former Wall of Voodoo front man's solo career has been hit-and-miss in terms of the way his CDs actually sound, but his skewed songwriting skill, amusingly nasal vocal timbre, black humor and sheer attitude always keep me coming back (how can you not love a guy whose "best of" CD is titled Songs That Made This Country Great?). Ridgway's most recent effort, Anatomy, is a toned-down, ethereal effort that varies between an almost folk-rock, singer/songwriter vibe and hypnotic, meditative synth hooks. Ironically, my favorite post-Voodoo Ridgway work has been with an apparently short-lived industrial group called Drywall Incident. While most industrial music strikes me as a bunch of self-important art students creating pretentious and ultimately meaningless noise, Drywall Incident sounded like Howlin' Wolf gone to shit on cheap gin and turned loose in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. Now that rocks! Leave it to a madman like Ridgway to find the common ground between aht and drunken bluesmen. You get the feeling that Ridgway has yet to paint his masterpiece, but when it finally spews forth from his perverse little onion, the Earth shall tremble, and things will never be the same again. Catch Ridgway on Saturday night at the Coach House.
Canada's RAY CONDO AND HIS RICOCHETS have never had a unique musical idea in their long lives, but I don't rightly give a marmoset's patootie because they do what they do so incredibly fucking well. Perhaps the finest western swing/ boogie/rockabilly/whatever unit on the planet, Condo and company mix chops, energy (Condo vibrates like a hard-banged tuning fork onstage) and pure authentic style into every note they play. I love watching these ancient geezers effortlessly stomp the living piss out of wagon-jumping young 'billy bands and their meticulously groomed pomps. Condo's new CD, High & Wild (Joaquin Records), predictably offers no surprises (well, their take on Johnny Winter's version of Mose Allison's "Parchman Farm" did raise my eyebrow because I never expected to hear any post-1960 influences from these guys at all), but as with their past two releases, it's a pleasure from start to finish. The band tackles such giants as Lester Young, Cole Porter and Buddy Johnson along with a host of obscure cover songs I've never heard, and if you didn't know better, you'd swear you were listening to a stack of old 78s. Shameless imitation never sounded sweeter.
Also new on the racks is Ricochets bassist PETE TURLAND's solo debut CD, Rollin' & Tumblin' Again (East Side Records). Unlike Condo, Turland writes originals (mostly good ones, too), and some of his covers are on the obvious side (Gene Vincent's "Crazy Legs" and Johnny Burnette's "Your Baby Blue Eyes"), but this stuff swings damn near as hard as the mother band. Turland is a good vocalist, an even better guitarist in the Grady Martin vein (you'd never know that bass is his main axe), and like the bossman, he knows how to make his retro sound genuine rather than trendy and contrived. While there are some western flourishes (nice work from steel guitarist Scott Smith), this is mostly a rockabilly record—although the title track and "Cold Feelin'" have hard blues grooves. Only complaint: the main hook on "Blue Eyed Devil" is a straight cop on the Stray Cats' "Rumble in Brighton." Ahhhh, get over it, Seigal! Blame Canada if their citizens seem to be doing American music better than their homegrown heroes these days.
DUKE ROBILLARD PLAYS AT THE BLUE CAFE, 210 THE PROMENADE, LONG BEACH, (562) 983-7111. THURS., JUNE 15, 9:30 P.M. $8; JIMMY THACKERY PERFORMS AT THE BLUE CAFE. SAT., 10 P.M. $10; STAN RIDGWAY PLAYS AT THE COACH HOUSE, 33157 CAMINO CAPISTRANO, SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, (949) 496-8930. SAT., 8 P.M. $15.