CD Review: The Matthew Skoller Band, These Kind Of Blues!

The Matthew Skoller Band makes solid, harmonica-heavy, Chicago-style blues. Skoller’s husky voice, like Stevie Ray Vaughn’s, contrasts nicely with his ace band’s smooth (but mercifully un-slick) arrangements, while his virtuoso harp playing lends both pathos and sheen to many of these mostly original tunes.

This, the band’s fourth CD, opens with a couple of straightforward rolling-blues numbers, but moves on to a more interesting musical statement in what I think of as the “lyrical” blues mode with the unabashedly political “Handful of People.” Over a swelling two-chord obbligato in the gloomy key of A Minor, Skoller indicts the Bush Adminisistration for wars and social inequity. Whatever your politics, this is good blues, but right-wingers beware: you might have a hard time tolerating these lay-it-on-the-line lyrics.

However, by “lyrical blues mode” I’m not referring to lyrics – though they are important in this as in nearly all styles of blues – but rather to that sweet and passionate musical idiom that was fashioned out of blues basics starting in the 1960s by icons like B. B. King, James Cotton, John Mayall, and Jimi Hendrix in his “Wind Cries Mary” mode. Skoller’s mastery of this difficult mix of earth and sky, muscle and mind, make him more than just a talented musician and writer.

The title track is a straight-ahead rock-and-roll blues of a type any tight band could do, but when Skoller and Co. slow down for the soulful “Let The World Come To You,” they come to the real heart of the album. Decorated by wonderfully subtle Hammond organ from Sidney James Wingfield, flavored by Brian Ritchie’s cooing shakuhachi (a Japanese wooden flute I’ve never before heard in blues), and featuring a scintillating guitar solo by either Lurrie Bell or Larry Skoller, this six-and-a-half-minute epic has got a little of everything in perfect measure – even some gospelly backing vocals. It’s a real slow-blues treasure.

“Wired World” is a funny complaint about being too reachable. Though it’s not about love, it seems almost a tribute to the Vaughn Brothers’ “Telephone Song.” (The hooky “Julia” also has that sunny Stevie Ray Vaughn style.) But “Stolen Thunder” is the CD’s standout uptempo track. The lyrics seem to refer to a talented friend who’s wasting his life in a world of drug dealing. The single chord and insistent beat evoke musically the frustration and hope laid bare verbally in the chorus:

I wonder if I tried could I save him?
Ya think if I tried I could save him?

The answer, one fears, is no. But the refrain sure stays with you.

“Down At Your Buryin'” is a James Cotton cover where Skoller and his band show their ability to adapt a dark and angry country blues to their own style, with a wailing, almost unearthly harp solo from Skoller, very earthy piano from Johnny Iguana, and the welcome return of that ghostly shakuhachi.

The CD closes with a drawling, hip-hop remix of “Handful of People” by rapper J.A.Q., who’s right down with Skoller’s politics. The remix was an inspired idea, an interesting change that still goes down smoothly with the rest of the album.

Highly recommended for all blues fans.