The Upshot: Seemingly on a tear, Rawls’ latest follows closely on the acclaim of his last release, Tiger In A Cage – revealing an artist who lives for the raucous groove, blending equal parts southern soul to Mississippi blues with a healthy reverence for Stax and Motown.
BY ERIC THOM
Those of us having any difficulty getting out of bed in the morning might take some inspiration from 67-year old Johnny Rawls. His seventeenth release, Waiting For The Train, proves that he clearly starts his day with more than orange juice, assaulting originals and covers alike as if half his age. And if he’s finally realizing the success he’s due, it’s because he’s following a formula that brings out his absolute best. With another production helmed by the gifted and precise mastery of Jim Gaines, Rawls matches smart covers (from the catalogues of Dylan, Wilson Pickett, Tyrone Davis and Syl Johnson), laying them out seamlessly amidst strong songs of his own (5 co-written with longtime bassist Bob Trenchard; another penned with Trenchard and James Armstrong). Blend in the turn-on-a-dime playing skills of his long-time band, The Rays: Johnny McGhee (guitar), Trenchard (bass), Richy Puga (drums) and Dan Ferguson (keyboards). Insert the high-end kick of their flawless horn section in Andy Roman (alto/tenor sax), Mike Middleton (trumpet), Nick Flood – baritone/tenor sax and Joel Chavarria (trombone). Mix in Jon Olazabal’s (The Dirty Heads) heady percussion and the dynamic impact of his brilliant backup singers – Janelle Thompson and Shakara Weston (1/2 of El Paso’s Somethin’ 4 The Fellas/S4TF) – and Rawls’ recipe comes to a full boil.
Behind this full head of steam, the train leaves the station briskly, driven by the powerful, horn-driven “Rain Keep Falling (‘Til I’m Free)”. This one song is a master class in what Rawls does best, he and his Rays delivering a powerful shot of modern soul, its roots buried deeply in the past. Special attention is due Dan Ferguson on this opening track for his keyboard flourishes as this tight outfit keeps things slightly restrained, allowing Rawls’ presence to stay out front where it belongs. The rollicking “Las Vegas” could go a long way towards turning around the city’s tourism numbers single-handedly, its energetic tempo serving to camouflage the downside of sin and a life lived doing what you know you shouldn’t be doing. But isn’t that what Vegas is for? Come to think of it, consider this the funkiest anthem against gambling and losing one’s way that ever there was.
Based on these two performances, alone, the spunky Rawls seems a million miles away from ruminating on the sunset of his life, yet “Waiting for the Train” meets mortality head-on. Dan Ferguson’s light touch on keyboards marries to McGhee’s Benson-like touch as Rawls and his sensual backup singers soulfully signal the approach of the ultimate station stop. When Wilson “Wicked” Pickett put his singular stamp on Bobby Womack’s “I’m In Love” back in ’68, he helped ease R&B firmly into the Soul camp. Rawls’ treatment of this untouchable classic hit actually kicks it up a notch – given Gaines’ astute production, the chemistry of this band and the molten connection between Rawls’ vocals and his simpatico backup singers. Rawls’ confidence is obvious here, unintimidated by this hit’s rich legacy. The funky “California Shake” conjures the unstoppable groove of the late James Brown, driven forward with tight horns, frenetic percussion and McGhee’s grasp of the songs’ key hook – the groove all the tighter for his studied economy. “Blackjack Was A Gambler” is a story-song with legs of its own – a cautionary tale that, despite its prominent sax solo and Richy Puga’s locked-down drumming finesse, waxes on about a minute longer than it might have.
However, Rawls’ reinvention of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” is, in a word, stunning. More celebratory than it is church-like, Rawls never overplays it, the honeyed harmonies of his singers melding with Ferguson’s reverent B3 and piano. Brilliant. Tyrone Davis’ “Turning Point” retains its funky groove yet, given this album’s lofty standard, seems a little light on energy. Syl Johnson’s “We Did It”, too, feels down a notch on Rawls’ Richter-like energy scale yet the arrangements are so skintight on this undeniable groove as to only be shaving hairs, the band getting a little more time to shine. Laying back a little, “Stay With Me” ends the album on a lovely note. The band tones things down ever so slightly, enabling Rawls, Thompson & Weston an opportunity to achieve a sublime vocal fluidity that flows along as if they were siblings.
Waiting For The Train is an even stronger release than the last – which seems an impossible achievement. Yet Johnny Rawls, if he sticks to his recipe, seems destined for greater and greater recognition in his seemingly effortless quest for blues-soul domination. There can be nobody more suitable to assume the crown.