Duke Robillard: Open at all hours, stamping passports for the blues train.

Boxing With Father Time
By David McGee

Duke Robillard
Stony Plain

Introducing his first new album of self-penned songs since 2003’s Exalted Love, blues guitarist-producer supreme Duke Robillard wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter. Kicking off with a righteous blast of southern soul-infused rock ‘n’ roll in “Workin’ Hard For My Uncle,” he turns his attention to the desperate straits many Americans find themselves in, toiling for low wages while “corporations are hiding millions/politicians breaking every vow.” His gritty vocal features an arresting blend of outrage and frustration, his guitar shimmers and screams with seething anger, and baritone sax man Doug James makes the first of numerous powerful contributions to the record with his blaring, wounded solos (and this might be the right time to acknowledge the continuing and always solid veteran Duke rhythm section of drummer Mark Texeira and bass man Brad Hallen, powerful and subtle as ever).

This is not the sole Robillard excursion into topicality here—the movin’, groovin’ “Text Me” is certainly one of the first, if not the first, putatively blues songs to suggest the adoption of modern technology in order to send sweet nothings to a faraway lover (and it’s a damn sight happier than Alan Jackson’s 2000 ditty, “www.memory,” itself a groundbreaker of its type in the country field). But this being the blues, and this being Duke Robillard, weightier matters of a personal nature are at the center of the discussion.

In one corner, Robillard is ruminating on advancing age, and appraising its practical aspects from a real-time perspective. “I tried to make my mark on this world/but I’m running out of time,” he sings in the funky “Hong Kong Suit,” which, come to think of it, has a bit of topicality in Duke’s wish not to be buried in fancy duds but rather outfitted in a cheap number from a Hong Kong tailor. In the roiling and swirling ambieance of “Blues Train,” with Bruce Bears’ burbling keyboards in the middle of it all when Duke isn’t tearing into a spitfire solo, Robillard muses: “It started out so slow and easy/then this old route got kind of rough/I guess I made a few bad choices/but I prefer to blame my luck/I guess gravity was stronger/than my poor will to pull me up,“ and later, “I’ve resigned myself to take whatever doom comes to me.”

On a less fatalistic note, “When You’re Old You’re Cold” counters the doomsday scenarios preceding it with wit: “Don’t write me off, honey/’cause I ain’t finished, that’s the truth/there’s still fire in the chimney/don’t mind the snow up on the roof,” for instance, and—oh, topicality again!—a little braggadocio in “Don’t need the little blue pills to keep me going strong/a little good red wine and I’d rock you all night long/when you’re old you’re cold/I’m here to tell you that’s a lie”—a gently swinging missive to a prospective paramour counseling, in short, “the older the violin, the sweeter the music,” and featuring star turns by Bears on piano, James on sax, and Robillard with a sweet, easygoing stroll of a guitar solo whose mix of single- and double-string flourishes would please B.B. King.

Duke Robillard, ‘Gonna Get You Told,’ from the World Full of Blues CD. captured live at the Ospel, The Netherlands, March 6, 2010

At other points, Robillard dispenses with the philosophy and gets down to cases. “Girl Let Me Tell Ya," a sweaty, humorous come-on with a ‘50s R&B flavor keyed by James’s wailing sax, can’t stop being engaging on multiple levels in its joyous spirit; its counterpart comes in the form of “Rhode Island Red Rooster,” a churning, lowdown blues ballad of lascivious intent (a more geographically specific take on Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” Duke hailing from RI himself) making its double entendre intent known by way of lyrics such as “I know how to treat my chickens/so they won’t ever go astray” and in the deeply sensual nature of the music itself—Robillard’s thick-toned soloing, Doug James’s moaning, lustful harmonica, and Bears’s lowdown, trilling right-hand forays on the 88s.

Ultimately the point of this exercise is best summed up in “The High Cost of Lovin,’” a grinding, heated missive penned a few years back with the late, great Doc Pomus (who produced Roomful of Blues’s Love Train album). A song that could only have been written from the vantagepoint of both experience and incurable romanticism, which marks it as a late-life Pomus gem, offers an abundance of lyrical wisdom to the lovelorn, to wit: “Broken dreams that keep on breakin’/that’s the stuff that love’s always been of/the high cost of lovin’ is the highest price to pay/but you just can’t walk away.” As the Cowardly Lion would say, Ain’t it the truth? Ain’t it the truth?

No one is going to accuse Duke Robillard of being a great singer, but his unwavering growl is a serviceable vehicle that hits its emotional mark better than that of many more naturally gifted vocalists who show off technique at the expense of soul. If you’re feeling a little down, maybe been dumped by your favorite gal or guy, having trouble making ends meet, or spotted the first gray hairs surfacing, Duke’s office is open at all hours. He’ll stamp your passport for the blues train and have you on your way and feeling better in no time at all.

Duke Robillard’s Passport To The Blues is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024