Being kind of behind the curve, I somehow missed Quinn Sullivan’s career until recently. I didn’t see any of his television appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Today Show, or even on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
My first encounter with Sullivan and his new album, Midnight Highway, was when I caught him on BB King’s Bluesville on Sirius. Damn, I thought, this guy’s good. Then when I found out that he was only 17 years old, I started to hate him a little…
He’s a phenomenal talent, and obviously knows his way around a guitar. I’ve met a few six-string prodigies and he’s obviously up there with the best, but where he veers off from the others is in his old soul approach to the blues. He has a voice that’s mature beyond his years, and the ability to connect with that older soul gives this album depth that is often not there with other young performers.
Midnight Highway, which was recently released on the Provogue label, is Sullivan’s third album. I’ll have to go back to the previous two, 2011’s Cyclone and 2013’s Getting There, to get a sense of how he’s grown and matured, but somehow I think he’s long since found his direction and approach.
Sullivan kicks off the album with a bit of distortion on Something For Me. The effect on his vocals is wild and sets up a very strange mood. Just a few notes in and you can already tell that this is not going to be your typical blues album. The lyrics are strong, and Sullivan’s playing is inspired. Listen for Reese Wynans’ keyboards – at times honkytonk, other times avant-garde. It’s a cool mix.
He follows up with Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming, a California pop sounding number. It’s always interesting to me to see a young artist stretching his wings a little and trying on different styles. There’s plenty of time to find that road you want to travel as long as you wander a bit looking for it. He’s got a pleasant voice on this one. Might not be the big blues number, but it’s a good song and very enjoyable.
The title track, Midnight Highway, is next. These are two words that just scream the blues. The slow, deliberate pace of the opening and the subtle use of Tony Harrell’s keyboards sets up a great country blues mood. I like this one a lot and while blues fans will enjoy it, there’s a lot of crossover appeal as well.
Sullivan gets to show his funky side on Crazy Into You. It’s gritty and choppy and an unusual choice, but one that takes the album in a slightly different direction. I hear a little of the post-Beatles George Harrison in the songwriting and vocals, and the world can use a little more of that. Good song.
The quiet country-flavored Eyes For You follows. It’s the first of three songwriting collaborations between producer/drummer/writer Tom Hambridge with Sullivan. The result is a lovely song and just shows up like a small ray of sunshine from a cloudy sky. Sweet and gentle. I really love this song.
Their second collaboration, Lifting Off, is a much funkier number with some wicked beats. This one sounds more contemporary while maintaining a serious edge in the vocals. This would be right at home on just about any of the ALT stations, it’s not going to fly with the blues purists, but that’s not the audience this album is trying to cultivate. Let the artists explore new territory, sometimes you find something you didn’t expect.
She Gets Me starts out nice and slow with some gentle acoustic guitar and Sullivan’s vocals. It’s another soft song that relies on deep emotion to make a connection with the listener. There’s some sweet guitar work (listen for the break) and nice keyboards from Reese Wynans. The follow up, Rocks, is a crunchy number with some wild over the top guitar. Very cool, and a hard rocking number with some nice blues spices tossed in.
Going is the third Hambridge/Sullivan collaboration and the song starts off with some aching vocals. It’s slow and subdued, but still has that deep emotion that reaches into your soul. They lyrics are very bluesy, but the music tends to be more of that California cool sound. Still, it’s one of those songs that digs in and gets a strong hold on you.
He follows up with one of the best blues numbers on the album, Graveyard Stone. Hambridge goes crazy on the drums and Sullivan’s vocals are honed to a fine edge. The lyrics are solid and the song rocks and delivers the blues in a solid and satisfying manner. This will be popping up on Time For The Blues very soon.
Big Sky starts off with a beautiful mix of guitar and keys and paints a lovely sonic picture. It’s nice to hear the musicians explore their world more and Sullivan lets his guitar do most of the talking. The track listings say that Sullivan provided vocals, but I’ll be damned if I can hear any. Either way, just enjoy the song.
One of George Harrison’s best-known Beatles hits, While My Guitar Gently Weeps is next. I mentioned Harrison earlier in regards to the sound that one song had, so it’s no surprise that one of his actual songs shows up later. It’s a faithful interpretation and Sullivan gets to put his fretwork in the spotlight. It’s a great cover that also allows him to put his own stamp on a true classic.
Sullivan brings the album to a close with an instrumental, Buffalo Nickel. It’s the longest song on the album at just a shade over 8:00, but a very nice touch. The music has been the most important part of the album (Sullivan’s vocals are good, but his guitar work has been the star) and it’s good to hear everybody getting their turn to shine.
If Midnight Highway is your first time hearing Sullivan in depth, as it is for me, this seems like a good place to start. He’s no longer the 10-year-old wunderkind, now he’s the ripe old age of 17 and exploring the things that are important to him. It’s a solid album and holds so much promise for the future.
Something else to consider about Quinn Sullivan, aside from having an old soul, he’s very smart. On this album, as well as the two previous ones, he worked with Tom Hambridge, one of music’s most potent weapons. Aside from being a stellar drummer, Hambridge is a producer, songwriter, and vocalist who is often compared with Willie Dixon for his contributions to so many aspects of the business.
Not bad company.
Aside from winning two Grammy Awards (so far), Hambridge has worked the likes of Susan Tedeschi, Buddy Guy, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Johnny Winter, Delbert McClinton, Jimmy Thackery, Joe Louis Walker and many other A-list stars in blues, country, and any other genre that strikes his fancy.
He and Sullivan make a good team and I look forward to a long string of collaborations to come. If you want to check out Quinn Sullivan’s music and travels, the best place to do it is at his website: http://quinnsullivanmusic.com/.