With a hearty swing and a vibrant, string-born melody to grab our attention right out of the gate, Johnny Riley wastes no time bring the smoky sounds of Texas blues home to us in “Johnny’s Boogie,” one of the thirteen songs occupying the tracklist of Riley’s new record Live At the Bluesberry Café. In tunes like this one, “There’s a Man Goin’ Round” and “Death Comes Creeping,” the Lone Star bluesman Riley rips through beats heavy and slender alike, layering one introspective harmony atop another in what starts to feel like an homage to one of the American songbook’s most treasured subgenres.
Live At the Bluesberry Café features some of the best swing I’ve heard on any record – blues or otherwise – in a long time, and I personally appreciate how adeptly its creator uses rhythm to make a statement to his audience. There’s as much being expressed to us through the grooving in “Change,” “Ain’t That a Shame (But That’s The Blues)” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” as there is any of the lyrics or melodic faceting in this LP, and even though the spotlight tends to focus on Riley’s lyrical lashings, it never remains transfixed on one specific element for very long.
MORE ON JOHNNY RILEY: https://johnnyrileyband.com/
I love the interplay between the harmonica and the strings in “Me, The Blues and Jack,” “She Don’t Call Me Baby Anymore” and the aforementioned “Johnny’s Boogie,” and were their dueling not as big a highlight as it is, I don’t know that Live At the Bluesberry Café would be the same record it is in this state. There’s a lot of duality to be enjoyed within Johnny Riley’s sound, and where some critics might look at his sound as being a bit fractured by aesthetical standards, I think it’s just the hybridity that was missing from the FM dial this season.
There’s definitely a streamlined concept in play with this production style, but it lends some authenticity to songs like the bonus track “Southern Born (Remix)” and the vocal-only “Holler,” parts one and two both, that simply isn’t that easy to find in indie blues anymore. It might be appealing to mainstream audiences, but I would ask those who have an issue with this what the genuine problem is? Like SRV before him, Riley is making Texas blues a little easier to digest, and while he isn’t using sizzling guitars to facilitate his mission, he is using a multilayered songwriting technique that I cannot wait to hear more of.
Blues fanatics can’t afford to miss this cherry of an LP this summer, and if you’ve only had a moderate craving for the sway of a four-bar beat, I’d still highly recommend seeing what Johnny Riley is up to in the new album Live At the Bluesberry Café. Riley is onto a white-hot formula for making smooth blues music in the 2020s, and though the competition is a mixed bag to say the very least, this singer/songwriter appears to have the chops to give us something very consistent in this initial slab of sonic intensity.