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|Keeping the Blues Low-Key|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Tuesday, 18 September 2001 18:00|
High-energy blues often come off as a touch disingenuous; if one’s truly stuck in the blues, one’s more likely to be in a torpor than firing off lightning-quick licks.
The Quad Cities’ own Whatever Blues Band seems to understand this.
The band’s new disc, In the Beginning, was self-released last month, and its basic sound is what might be called the blues of ennui. They’re a little sluggish and slow, like the shuffle of a person after a big meal. That feeling is even invoked by the title and lyrics of the album’s first track, “Up All Night,” as well as the exhaustion of “Poor Woman Blues.”
On the latter, vocalist Rachel Knight lists her expenditures: “I got me some seven dollar sneakers / and some five-dollar slacks / I got this shirt for two fifty / with a free baseball cap.” The verse culminates in the rhetorical question, “How you s’posed to make it when your last dollar’s spent?” The working-class song also features some nice wordplay: “And when you don’t have a car, the roads are all uphill.”
Knight leads the band through 10 tracks, and her clean, smooth voice is a nice complement to the band’s uncluttered sound, well-balanced between sax and guitar. Everything about the record is competent and pleasant – the musicianship, the vocals, the songwriting, and a mix that gives Knight and each player room to shine. Nothing on In the Beginning is likely to blow a listener away, but there’s not an objectionable moment to be found. The record is the epitome of professional, workmanlike blues.
The fatigued sound that dominates the record’s first half works well for the most part, although at times it fights against the aims of the songs. On a track such as “Gimme Baby,” the lyrics suggest intense longing, but the laid-back sound feels incongruous.
At other times, such as on “To Know Me,” Whatever keeps the pace slow, but there’s an intensity and groove in the music that fits the songs better.
“SWF” and “Sweet Lovin’ Man” find the band in a bit more of a rambunctious mood, and those tracks mark the beginning of a livelier second half. These songs have more energy and playfulness, particularly with the keyboards and guitar on “Sweet Lovin’ Man.” These tracks suggest a band that’s certainly capable of tearing it up live but might have fallen prey to the age-old problem of being unable to replicate the intensity of performance on the fifth take.
“Keep It to Yourself” – penned by Brad Harvey – steps out of the blues idiom, and the results are impressive. Knight sounds like a different singer, and the creamy, sax-filled ballad emerges as the record’s best track. “Back Alley Angel” is nearly as effective with its sax and piano hooks.
In the Beginning then settles down into familiar blues for its last two tracks, and the earlier departures feel even stronger. While there’s nothing wrong with Whatever’s straight-ahead and understated sound, the songs that diverge from blues show real promise; the band might consider dropping the word “blues” from its title and continue to explore new territory.
The Whatever Blues Band will be playing Friday, September 22, at Bent River Brewing Company in Moline (9 p.m. start) and Saturday, September 23, at DJ’s Riverfront Fest in Clinton (starting between 6 and 6:30 p.m.). The band’s Web site can be found at (http://www.whateverbluesband.com).
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