Alabama bluesman Jimmy Hall made his name fronting a southern boogie band named Wet Willie, featuring his brother Jack on bass and sister Donna on backing vocals, amongst others. Although the band still plays and tours to this day, they are virtually unknown on this side of the pond, but Jimmy has at last landed on UK soil with this superb album of rocking blues originals. As usual in these cases, the genie which has granted the wish is Joe Bonamassa and Roy Weisman’s Keeping The Blues Alive (KTBA) foundation, with Joe and long-time business partner Josh Smith on Production duties. Joe often lends some of his musicians to these ventures, but this time, Jimmy is backed by the whole Bonamassa band, plus a dream team of guest guitarists in the form of Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule and Jared James Nicholls, plus Joe and Josh themselves, all ace axe men.
The result is tremendous. Jimmy Hall has a great voice and can blow a harp with the best; he also made a name playing saxophone, both for Wet Willie and country star Hank Williams Jr, but it’s a skill that doesn’t feature on this album at all. The band is absolutely top of the range and it shows; all Hall has to do is get out there, sing and blow; the result is assured. They elect to start with the up-tempo Jumpin’ For Joy with its bouncy, up-tempo, straight-8 rhythm. The mix and production are spot on; Bonamassa plays a great guitar solo, but the emphasis is on Hall’s harp and his voice. A tiny taste of female backing vocal adds savour right near the end, but this ingredient adds more and more to the sound as the album plays on – there is no info about the identity of the girl vocalists, but I would venture to guess that they are also from Joe’s touring band.
Risin’ Up is a slow gospel anthem with a soulful Latino vibe reminiscent of Santana; a lot of stuff about going down to the holy water and a churchgoer rising up to heaven add to the southern gospel atmosphere, and some backing harp is dubbed in as well. Dream Release is not blues at all, but a pop-rock ballad that recalls Hall’s lifetime friendship with Gregg Allman; the Allman Brothers gave Wet Willie their first break as their support act in 1971. The track opens with acoustic strumming, with soulful horns added in.
The band are back into full rockin’ speed with Girl’s Got Sugar featuring Josh Smith on guitar; it’s an up-tempo driving blues rocker, almost consciously in the style of the early Fabulous Thunderbirds. Smith’s rhythm guitar style is distinctive, with a low-down, grungy vibe; the guitar and harp play a co-ordinated duet that breaks down into a great Jimmy Vaughan-style guitar solo from Smith. Warren Haynes does tremendous service on slide guitar for Ready Now, a slow, bluesy ballad with a flavour of Jimmy Ruffin’s What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted, cleverly written so that it could equally be taken as a love song or a song of redemption. Haynes does a great turn on the slide on this one, which builds to a soaring, uplifting finale.
Holding On For Dear Love is basically American R’n’B with a rim-shot rhythm, veering towards ska or calypso. Joe plays a nice, tasteful, clear-toned guitar solo on this one, before swapping out his tone for a full-on, overdriven crunchy blues on the six-minute A Long Goodbye. It’s not clear why this one is billed as ‘featuring Joe Bonamassa,’ seeing as he plays the solos on almost every track, but he certainly takes top billing on this weeping slow blues, with a soaring masterpiece of a solo. The band builds and rises in telepathic unison, building to a tremendous crescendo, making this an album highlight.
Will You Still Be Here, an ode to life on the road, settles back into a lazy, mid-tempo shuffle with a slightly jazzy feel with gently swinging bass and drums, and then the album clicks over into a different vibe, courtesy of Jared James Nicholls’ guest spot on Without Your Love. Both his rhythm technique and fluid, legato lead style contrast tastefully with what has gone before, the track taking on something of the ambience of Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon.
Love For It returns to the gospel arena with electric organ behind the vocals with a loud tambourine tapping out the rhythm, and crowd clapping percussion. A hi-hat gradually introduces bass, backing vocals, different keyboard sounds and eventually subtle drums, building really slowly with some male and female humming backings on the third verse. It has a mellow, gentle vibe, not really stretching itself before it all fades out except for the humming, which continues briefly by itself. Hall reverts to full-on southern porch acoustic blues with the closer, Eyes In The Back Of Your Head, which features just two acoustic guitars, vocals and a harp solo. All that’s left is for me to scratch my head and ruefully wonder why Jimmy Hall’s name is not already in my list of great blues players – it’s true, the band and especially the guitarists, every one of them, make a great contribution, but they are careful always to push Hall to the front, to let rip and do his thing – and truthfully, that’s where he belongs.