Forget the youthful face, Willie DE’s got an old soul; the kind of soul that’s seen a lot and it comes through in his music. If you are looking for a strictly blues album, All Aboard The Thunder Train is not going to be your cup of tea, but if you are willing to listen to some other influences, primarily jazz and Americana style music, you will be in for a real treat. DE’s vocals are crisp and his guitar playing is steady without relying on pyrotechnics to spice up his songs.
DE has honed his chops, first as a kid busking in front of Charlottesville’s Scott Stadium where he entertained the crowds with covers, originals, and anything the audience shouted at him; later at VCU’s School of Music (which is housed in the same building where your humble narrator used to teach). Now he’s a full-fledged musician – working not only the usual music haunts but appearing in major festivals such as Floyd Fest, which attracts top players from around the world.
Like many early efforts by major musicians, DE is supported by the efforts of many friends and fellow players, not necessarily a core band. This is partially true, I’m assuming, as DE is still evolving and looking for his signature sound. Not every artist finds it right away and this album, as good as it is, still has a feel of experimentation.
See, we’re already back to the jazz influence.
Make no mistake, I enjoy jazz very much, and his spirit of experimentation is one of those key elements that drew me into his album. Much as he is trying out new things musically, he’s also trying out new sounds as evidenced by the collections of contributors to the album. While DE wrote all ten of the songs and handled all the lead vocals and guitars, he was joined by Nate Brown on drums; John D’earth on flugelhorn and trumpet; Peter DelGrosso on piano and French horn; Simon Evans and Randall Pharr on double bass; Wells Hanley on piano and Fender Rhodes; Jonah Kane-West on organ; Morwenna Lasko on violin; Bobby Read on soprano and tenor saxophone; Jeff Romano on percussion and harmonica; Gina Sobel on flute and background vocals; Devon Sproule on background vocals; Brian Wahl on electric bass; and Drew Weaver on concert bass drum, cajon, and drums.
By the way, DE is short for Denton-Edmundson which is a little difficult to say when being introduced on stage. DE is a cool stage moniker and gives this folk/blues/jazz artist a little “street” in his delivery. As near as I can tell, Willie has no connection to the state of Delaware which also goes by DE. Hope that clears things up!
The first song on the album is the de facto title track. Thunder Train opens with a nice fiddle kick and at first I wasn’t sure if this was an old-school country album but within a very few bars I stopped worrying and just enjoyed what DE was doing. It’s interesting to me that the fiddle is not employed more in the blues as it is in both country and folk music where it’s a mainstay. DE paints interesting word pictures with his lyrics and you can hear the influence of some of the greats in his approach.
He follows up by slowing things down slightly on Ivory Castle Walls. He continues to evoke some of the greats with his poetry. It’s an interesting take on walls that are built up around fields and the guitar plays off the soprano saxophone nicely. You won’t be dancing the boogaloo to this one, but you just might hold that special someone a little bit closer.
DE gets a little funky on the next song, Kobra King. He employs an electric bass and concert bass drum to keep the beat and once again Read adds a very cool sax run. This one steers towards the avant garde with its approach, but it is one of those that stands out and shows that DE has a darker side than one would first think.
Seven Sparrows brings us back more firmly into folk territory. Everything is stripped down and he uses some harmony vocals to sweeten the sound just a little. It’s a nice quiet song and an interesting choice to follow the previous one.
The bucolic scenes continue with Diamond Days and adds more than a touch of magic to the proceedings. Devon Sproule’s background voice blends beautifully with DE’s on this – and the previous – song and I find myself wanting to hear more of her. DelGrosso’s piano is a great accompaniment to the song and D’earth delivers a solid run on flugelhorn. Good song.
Joy & Sugar is a strong folk song utilizing guitar and flute with decent vocals. It’s a short song but catches your ear. De follows with the jazzy Louie Haryll’s Party, with its surreal lyrics and swinging sound. The trumpet and organ add great touches to this late-night fest. I would like to hear DE and company try a few more songs in this vein.
Southwest Ramble uses a harp intro to coax the song out and it’s a slow build. DE focuses on vocals while Romano plays the harp. The guitar is underlying for much of the song allowing Romano to take control. It’s another quiet song and this entire album showcases DE’s musical adaptability. I’ll be curious to see what direction may take him from here.
Release Them Hounds builds off DE’s guitar and DelGrosso’s mournful French Horn and the song has a beautiful melancholy feel. Sproule is back adding her vocal touches as well. It’s a sad song that draws you in to the story very well.
De closes the album with Swampy Blues, the closest thing to a straight blues tune on the album. This is the one you’ll hear on Time For The Blues and if you catch him at a festival or live show, it’s one I’m sure you’ll hear him as it is a definite crowd pleaser. Good way to end on a high note.
Do yourself a favor and sample the album. Willie DE is throwing a CD release party on November 13th at The Camel starting at 5:00 p.m. It should be a lot of fun, plus you never know who just might show up to jam. If you like what you hear you can score a copy of the album and have it autographed.
If you missed the party but still want to find out more about DE and where he might be playing (and get yourself a copy of All Aboard The Thunder Train, be sure to check out his website: http://www.williede.com/.