The Upshot: Deep-down, impassioned, roadhouse blues with a sophisticated edge that can only result when seasoned, master players use their combined talents to blend smart covers with crafty originals, forming a seamless whole.
BY ERIC THOM
If Henderson’s name sounds at all familiar, it should. He’s been the somewhat undercover guitarist-of-choice for many a Nashville session before breaking out on his own, with an equally under-the-radar solo career in ’94. From the Bel Airs to the Bluebloods, his sixth solo release complements his countless sidebar projects, including the notable bluegrass-meets-country-meets-soul hybrid, The SteelDrivers. A key partner/player back when the Dead Reckoning label formed back in ’94, it’s no surprise that Henderson’s version of ‘country’ is laced with slide, smiles and a raw collision of simpatico genres – blues, bluegrass, rock – smartly bound together under the weight of his beefy vocals, lethal slide guitar-playing and occasional, smoldering harp. A gifted, well-cured songwriter, he contributes 5 tracks to this tasteful collection of blues-based covers, bringing things down to the level of a par-boiled, roadhouse rumble.
Beginning with his self-penned “I Want To Know Why”, the listener gets an earful of low-down, stripped-down blues – lone electric guitar, barrelhouse piano and the skintight rhythm section of Pat O’Connor (drums) and Michael Rhodes (bass). Henderson’s gruff vocal is nicely contrasted by the artful flourish of Kevin McKendree on piano. Speaking of secret weapons, what this guy contributes on piano across these 11 tracks shines a light on his instrument like few before him. And then, as you warm to Henderson’s tough, papa bear growl, he applies the slide guitar that’s been his main meal ticket for so many years. The net result is a raw, hard-driving effect that’s as close to roadhouse as you’ll get without being there. Covering multiple blues guitarists, Hound Dog Taylor’s “Send you Back To Georgia” begins as a rollicking, piano-based boogie until Henderson throws down his patented slide torch, transforming the rocker into a full, foot-kicking workout.
The comparatively gentler slide intro to Taylor’s “It’s Alright” takes this simple barroom shuffle, given McKendree’s strong piano work, into familiar turf until strong guitar and piano solos merge to elevate the original. The title track, co-written with R. S. Field, provides a spirited highlight – slowed down and extra-soulful, complete with piano, B3, backup singers and added guitarist Don Underwood for an R&B finish. His own “Weepin’ and Moanin’” provides a solid blues punch, slowed to a lethal pace as McKendree and Henderson trade off their rich instrumental abilities. Yet, it’s Muddy Water’s “Mean Red Spider” which cuts deeper than most, as Henderson serves up his best vocal and stinging guitar like you’ve not heard before, combined with a powerful piano performance as the rhythm section ups their game at an upbeat, almost funky pace.
Likewise, Robert Johnson’s “If I Had Possession” enjoys an extended slide and vocal intro before Henderson and McKendree turn up the heat, carving out a grinding, blues-based rocker that could make Derek & the Dominos blush (and that’s with a single guitar) – the perfect vehicle for both men’s gifts. Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Unseen High” enjoys a darker, more foreboding treatment that benefits from their single-room recording process, warts’n’all, from Henderson’s extended solo intro through to McKendree’s menacing piano attack. A reworking of Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” finds the band grafting rockabilly to rock’n’roll bedlam across a piano-based barroom boogie while Melvin “Lil’ Son” Jackson’s “Gamblin’ Blues” turns from its lackadaisical beginnings towards higher ground as both piano and guitar take extended flights.
Henderson and McKendree’s “Rock House Blues” acts as palate-cleansing coda, with solo harp opening the door to McKendree’s slow-burn piano, as if trying to cleanse the air of stale beer and cigarette smoke – which is about all this disc is missing.