"Okay," said this friend of mine, looking at my record collection, "so who's your favorite guitarist?" My answer, like yours, was as imprecise as those features music magazines periodically run: The 100 greatest quitarists!" It depends on your mood, and probably the phases of the moon.
Having said that, if you're in a blues mood - and if you're listening to this CD - Duke Robillard's got to be on your list. And if he isn't already, he certainly will be by the time the CD player shuts off.
Now in his mid fifties - he was born in the wonderfully-named community of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and he still lives in what's the smallest state in the Union - Duke's been a blues fan for as long as he can remember.
However, his musical tastes have always cheerfully included jazz, swing, r&b and rock and roll; he remembers hearing Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock when he was six, and it was a quick segue to Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Duane Eddy, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino.
His first instrument was the ukulele. Duke actually made his first electric guitar with parts from an old guitar given to him by his uncle. It was a project that awarded him second place in his school science fair. He formed his first band at school in his teens, and discovered the likes of Louis Jordan, Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, and all the Kings; B.B., Freddie, and Albert.
Duke was only 19 when he formed his first "real" band in 1967, a solid mix of Chicago blues influences and classic r&b that he christened "Roomful of Blues", which soon became one of the most talked-about blues-based bands in North America. The band reflected Duke's wide range of musical influences, and was tough enough to accompany two of its heros, Big Joe Turner and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson amongst others, on many live dates.
A dozen years later he left the band - which continues today - and joined rockabilly king Robert Gordon for a while, before recording two albums with The Lengendary Blues Band (formed by worthy alumni of Muddy Water's band). Duke then led his own band until 1990, when he replaced Jimmy Vaughan in The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
In 1993, as he was about to sign a world-wide recording deal with Virgin/Pointblank, he met Stony Plain's Holger Pertersen at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and mentioned in conversation that he wanted to record a complete album of blues, without his traditional r&b and jazz influences. Stony Plain financed the project - with Virgin's blessing - and the resulting album, Duke's Blues (SPCD-1156), earned rave reviews. Virgin soon licensed the recording from Stony Plain and released it around the world (except in Canada, where it continues in Stony Plain's catalogue). It became Duke's best selling album.
Duke Robillard's relationship with Stony Plain has been amazingly fruitful. As a producer, he has brought the label a wide variety on inspired, well-crafted projects, included two superb releases with the Kansas City piano king Jay McShann, two with the lake Jimmy Witherspoon, and powerful come back CDs by Rosco Gordon and Billy Bob Arnold. There is an wonderful album of jazz guitar duets with Herb Ellis (and there's more in the vault for release in the future), and he pulled a breakthrough release from a smart Canadian band, The Highliners.
As an artist, he has release four more stellar CDs - Stretchin' Out Live (SPCD-1250), Explorer (SPCD-1265), and now the album you have in your hands. His passion as a player, singer, and guitarist shines through all of them, as does his musical curiosity and his willingness to explore the richness of American music.
These "explorations" have been facilitated by his work as a studio player with the likes of Ruth Browm, Johnny Adams, Pinetop Perkins, John Hammond, Ronnie Earl and Bob Dylan (Duke can be heard on his rave-reviewed Time Out of Mind).
Living With the Blues, in fact, is the all-blues successor to his first CD for Stony Plain, cut back in 1993 - and a simple comparison between the two reveals the breadth of Duke's influences. Not only does he choose fine songs from two of the Kings (B.B. and Freddie), but he takes them from a varied blues menu that covers Tampa Red and Little Milton and Muddy Waters - and picks a fine old Brownie McGhee song as the title track. Better still, this release includes some of Duke's most powerful work as a singer, all of it seasoned with some of his original tunes. Recorded in his home studio 'Duke's Mood Room', he added vocal tracks - sometimes fresh out of bed and still in his bathrobe - when he felt in top form.
Not that Duke hangs around his house very often, despite his growing interest in art photography, he's still on the road racking up 200 to 220 dates a year; "being out there - that's what I do," he explains. "It's just bringing the music to the people, that's all."
And Stony Plain is proud to be doing the same thing: Bringing Duke's music to the people. There's plenty of it, the standard has been uncommonly high, and this release bids fair to be counted as one of his very best.
Richard Flohil is a Toronto music writer, publicist, and occasional concert presenter.
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