This is bracing stuff and as natural as a breeze. The technical demands of R&B, gospel, and soul and blues music aren’t particularly exacting and its aspects are narrow. Instead, the great talents working in the form have primarily distinguished themselves by bringing much of their own unique personalities into the songwriting and performances, thus transforming the style into something persuasively fresh. It’s ever-elusive feel too. If you are a singer or guitarist, it’s your phrasing, the way and when you bend the strings, how you bring the rhythm guitar in lockstep with the snare drum, and so on. This music rolls out of Brad Absher and his band mates in Swamp Royale without a single hint of over-thinking, pandering, or hollow approximation. It has influences but never sounds imitative. The dozen songs on his album Lucky Dog are humorous, knowing, and crackle with irrepressible life.
Absher and the band’s influences assert themselves from the start. “Woman Who Loves Me” has subject matter and tone ripped straight from blues songwriting 101, but it stands apart from a vast portion of entries in the genre thanks to the rhythm section’s memorable groove, Absher’s piercing lead guitar, and the whiskey and molasses richness of his voice. The horns fill the song with a lot of added musical color. “Memphis on the Way” opens as a pure, undistilled electric blues with romping piano plowing away underneath. Despite the assertive quality of the music, this isn’t Marshall-stack bucket of blooze cock rock – Absher and his band have an undeniable swing avoiding the bash and thud style of bluesy rock in favor of something much closer to the all-together real deal. His voice makes a lot of this work too. Organ makes its first appearance since the opener on the funkafied “Trouble”, but the star here is drumming that pops with fantastic flash from the outset while staying firmly committed to serving the song. The backing vocals joining Absher on this song are tastefully handled and sweeten his rough-hewn style.
Absher and the organ spar a little at the beginning of the oft covered “I’d Rather Be Blind” and the arrangement continues to percolate throughout, particularly the rhythm section. Absher’s stinging lead guitar lines give the performance a lot of flair, but his note perfect vocal claims a piece of this venerable classic for himself. “Jesus on the Mainland” is another cover on an album primarily relying on original compositions, but Absher and the band never play a song like they didn’t write it. The gospel influence on this performance, naturally, is very strong and there’s obviously been a great deal of energy expended on the vocal arrangement to positive effect. Absher’s arrangement, likewise, maintains the song’s straight-ahead plea to the listener’s heart. “I Can’t Wait” has an easy, even languid feel that makes it ideal for some late night listening over a drink or six. Some of Van Morrison’s influence comes through strongly in this song but, as always, there’s a stronger guitar presence here than you’d ever encounter on one of Van the Man’s releases. Lucky Dog wraps up with the song “I Need a Drink”, a light humorous, but dark reflection on the aftermath of a failed relationship and the singer’s need for some buffer between him and his emotions. Absher turns in a fine soulful vocal quite in line with the earlier exceptional work that’s filled the album. Lucky Dog is a timely reminder that this genre, in all of its variations, is every bit as alive today as ever thanks to the transformative talents of musicians and writers like Brad Absher.
9 out of 10 stars.