The Upshot: It seems almost criminal that the record Boz Scaggs is most remembered for should act as the signpost for an entire career. In the years since ’76’s Silk Degrees, his best work ever is happening now.
BY ERIC THOM
I’m guessing Boz Scaggs could care less whether we like what he’s doing or not – and am betting he hasn’t cared for years. His connection to music is deeply personal. He sings for himself and it’s always been about the music. He’s never been a trend setter and I believe that the overblown commercial success of Silk Degrees – the album by which he’ll be forever measured – was likely as big a surprise to him as it was to his management. In typical Boz fashion, he never set out to align himself to the ‘disco’ of the times. Truth be told, the record has more to do with the blues and R&B shadings that this blue-eyed soul singer has always favored – which is why it holds up to this day, long after the dust of disco era has blown away. Long his own man, Scaggs has always seemed driven to do his best and to exceed his own standards first – a perfectionist from humble beginnings.
A lot is being made of the fact that Out Of The Blues is “Act III” of a trilogy of genre albums, as it is being billed. I doubt Boz’ fans care. All that really matters is that Out Of The Blues is his best release yet since Come On Home – and likely the best album you’ll hear this year. It’s entirely consistent with everything Boz he’s ever done since being birthed into the age of early rock ’n’ roll, R&B, blues and rock, growing up on radio in Oklahoma and Texas. He’s just – at 74 years of age and a 20+ record catalogue – a hell of a lot better at it now. He knows his strengths and it’s only natural he’d pay tribute to those originals which have meant something to him, adding something tangible to his personal evolution as acting Ambassador of Refined Tastes. Despite his unerring reverence for the likes of Jimmy McCracklin, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jimmy Reed and even Neil Young, the songs chosen had to do more than simply be good. Each had to allow him to transform them into something all his own. Of special note are the four, obsidian-solid originals written by fellow San Franciscan musician and friend, Jack ‘Applejack’ Walroth, one a Scaggs co-write – seamlessly blending with the whole, despite the mixture of ‘new to old’.
Boz’ mastery over his technique and painstaking control over the material that he covers is only part of the recipe for success here. His choice of musicians is notable as each is adept at adding much more to each song than mere notes and rhythms. Out Of The Blues literally breathes with an intimacy and a larger-than-life groove throughout, thanks to the chemistry between Willie Weeks, Jim Keltner, Jim Cox, Ray Parker Jr., Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton. This vital crew lends an earthy, highly organic feel to a record expertly produced within an inch of its life, informed by an allegiance to the principles of just-enough but never-too-much.
Right out of the gate, the highly colorful “Rock and Stick” hits hard with its ringing guitar chords and Bramhall’s rich embellishments. Boz’s liquid, honeyed vocals – wrapped in the warmth of Weeks’ bass – join with songwriter Walroth, who injects a surprisingly beefy harp as Keltner adds his distinctive touch with every drum strike. A little B3 in the background and backup singers conjure a little bit of heaven as Boz notes, “You can shake, you can shim-sham-shimmy” – entirely committed to the era, despite this being a new composition. Cue the opening sax attack of Eric Crystal, Thomas Politzer and Doc Kupka which, when added to Jim Cox’s seductive B3 (and stately piano), sets the stage for Scaggs’ treatment of “I’ve Just Got To Forget You” – a powerful and personal tribute to a key idol, the late Bobby “Blue” Bland. Magic Sam’s cover of Jimmy McCracklin’s “I’ve Just Got To Know” was an unknown to Scaggs until introduced to it by David Hidalgo. Here, aided by Cox’s St. Louis-styled piano, a bewitching horn section and Charlie Sexton’s tasteful lead guitar break, Scaggs’ silken vocals make it his own. On “Radiator 110”, Walroth’s standout harp (with its slight Lee Oskar shading) combines with a tougher guitar mix (Scaggs and Steve Freund) and Ricky Fataar’s fat drum sound, propelling Walroth’s ‘lover as hot car’ analogy towards becoming an ultimate driving song. Here, Scaggs’ convincing vocal gently simmers over sparring guitars as Cox’s B3 keeps the RPMs just out of the red. Walroth and Scaggs’ own “Little Miss Night and Day” is a swinging Texas shuffle injecting a severe shot of rock ’n’ roll to the hip as Bramhall and Sexton blaze against Cox’s pounding 88s, together with a hint of Walroth’s harp. Considering the choice of covers, who would guess that Neil Young’s semi-obscure “On The Beach” would be included? Yet, in Scaggs’ hands, it’s the most memorable track here – squeezing the blues out of the starkly ragged original, transforming it into something achingly beautiful. It makes the most of its slowed-down self as each fat slap of Keltner‘s tom-tom hits hard like a punch to the stomach while strains of B3 and lightly dueling guitars breathe much life into the original treatment.
Of course, nobody can squeeze more from sadness than the velvety strains of Boz Scaggs and here, he’s at his best. Walroth’s harp takes a sharp country turn on Jimmy Reed’s “Down In Virginia” which, for Scaggs, is an artist almost too easy to cover, lending him an element of elegance not normally associated with his style. “Those Lies” – another Walroth work – grabs you instantly by the throat with its slick, uptown attack. Driven by Sexton’s aggressive, processed guitar sound, Keltner’s skin-tight drumming and a brawny barrage of sax, extra animation from the baritone helps push this over the top. Cox adds B3 as if each player is following a different path – Scaggs’ vocal gluing it all together as one. “The Feeling Is Gone” is another of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s iconic songs that goes downtown with a decidedly jazzy feel as Scaggs plays straight homage to one of his more sophisticated heroes. While the horn section and piano add scorch to Scaggs’ liquid vocal, this classic breakup song serves as a lamented end to this lush outing.
This is a re-energized Scaggs, paying the love for his R&B roots well forward, seemingly delighted with the process. Out of the Blue offers more blues and R&B than you might have expected. But chances are good you’ll leave wanting more.