october 2011

sugar ray
Sugar Ray Norcia: divesting himself of intimate, earthy discourses on his strivings in the romantic arena and in the larger world of simply making it through a day without losing your identity

Feeling It Bone-Deep

Sugar Ray and the Bluetones get busy when the sun goes down

By David McGee


Sugar Ray and the Bluetones
Severn Records

If ever a bluesman has sounded like he’s been through the mill but emerged with body, soul and spirit intact, it’s Sugar Ray Norcia. The former Roomful of Blues lead singer, who ended a seven-year tenure with that group in 1998 to embark on what has been a fruitful solo career, puts so much feeling into his instrumental harmonica breaks it’s a wonder he has any energy left for singing--but he does, to spare. In fact, he seems compelled to divest himself of intimate, earthy discourses on his strivings in the romantic arena and in the larger world of simply making it through a day without losing your identity. As per the latter, he finds common ground with his superb guitarist, Monster Mike Welch, whose song “Hard To Get Along With” sounds so intensely personal in the way Sugar embraces it with a world-weary acceptance that you have to check the credits to be sure it didn’t come from Sugar’s own pen. Welch reminds us of that with a terrific, grinding solo of his own, but the way Sugar moans, “I know I can be hard to get along with, so hard to get along with, sorry, but I’m doing the best I can—I’m doing my best, baby,” followed by his fierce, wailing harp solo, is the sound of a man owning up, not play acting, and thus embracing these confessions as his own. But the same guy who admits his trying nature in “Hard To Get Along With” reveals himself as a romantic in Willie Dixon’s stormy blues ballad, “You Know My Love,” wherein he soothingly advises a woman of his intentions to be her port in a storm if her well-laid plans go awry and leave her needing a faithful, loving friend who has patiently stood by awaiting his moment. Welch is spectacular on the cut with his steely, noir-ish atmospherics splintering Sugar’s warm testimony as if reflecting the inner turmoil the singer hides while biding his time.

Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, ‘No Good Woman,’ live in Ratingen, Germany, November 12, 2010. Sugar Ray Norcia, harmonica and vocals; Monster Mike Welch, guitar; Michael ‘Mudcat’ Ward, bass; Neil Gouvin, drums. From Sugar Ray’s 1996 Bullseye Blues solo album, Sweet & Swingin’.

You want to give Sugar all due credit for his stellar harp work, because he’s one of the instrument’s finest contemporary practitioners—his thick, lyrical tone is as much a trademark as his economical phrasing and the quick kick it provides a tune, which might be in the red-hot swagger he deploys on the album’s first song, “I’m Having a Ball,” or the killer shimmering moan, deeply blue and impenetrably dark, limning the paralyzing despair he concedes as his lot in life in a wrenching treatment of Mitchell Parish’s haunting “Evening.”

“Evening” also happens to remind us how focusing inordinately on Sugar’s harp is to undervalue his singing, which would be a damn shame. Having long ago learned to make the most of what he’s got, Sugar brings a cool, winning bravado to those moments when he can brag a little about himself—as he does with disarming insouciance in the delightful and aforementioned “I’m Having a Ball”—but on Evening he shines mightily during the quiet moments. With a timbre and phrasing reminiscent of a younger B.B. King, Sugar gets inside the title song’s heartbreak and makes you feel it in the weight of his voice, with its tiny smidgen of vibrato deepening the sadness in his delivery. “You Know My Love” is a beautifully controlled performance consistent with the song’s themes of enduring love and watchful waiting. And in a change of pace, albeit still in a thoughtful mode, in “Too May Rules and Regulations,” Sugar adopts the stance of blues sage to comment, laconically but sarcastically, about the innumerable guidelines curtailing our pursuit of happiness, such as warnings against overcaffeinating ourselves and overindulging in alcohol (warnings against which Sugar says he read about in a newspaper), as a downhearted blues background swirls around him, keyed by Welch’s guitar and Anthony Geraci’s moody piano--all of which leads him to conclude, “I’m just gonna have to give up readin’,” an old joke but one with undeniable wisdom given the context.

Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, a potent version of ‘Sad Sad City’

In a nice touch, Sugar concludes the proceedings with a four-and-a-half-minute instrumental, “XO,” a slow, persistent grinder providing one more opportunity to appreciate the synergy between he and his bandmates, as his low moaning harp, Welch’s understated guitar, Geraci’s juke joint piano and the solid, unobtrusive rhythm section of bassist Michael “Mudcat” Ward and drummer Neil Gouvin sign off with a slow groovin’, mellow wind-down. Like the rest of the tunes, this one’s not about flash, it’s about communication and what it takes to get the feeling across collectively—and Evening is nothing if not an album a listener can feel to and through the bone.

Sugar Ray and the Bluetones’ Evening 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