If you don’t think the blues are universal, you haven’t checked the number of international artists that are releasing great work. Lately I’ve written about blues men and women from all corners of the globe – Canada, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, and I’ve even received material from South America and Africa.
Today’s review shines a light on a performer from Australia, John McNamara, who has been making a name for himself in in native land as well as the U.S. as he was a Semi-Finalist at the IBC in 2015.
Memphis must have made quite the impression on him, because for his latest release on Bahool Records, Rollin’ With It, he’s teamed up with some of the best musicians the city has to offer to recreate that Memphis sound.
To say that McNamara has soul is like saying humans breathe air. He sings in one of the most soulful voices you’ve ever heard and he plays some great licks on his guitar. However, he knows when to use, and even more when NOT to use his guitar. His songs do not turn into 12-minute shred fests. He sticks to his sound, which is very much like that beautiful STAX sound that many of us miss so much.
Aside from McNamara on lead vocals and lead guitar, the musicians include Steve Potts (Booker T. & The MGs) on drums; Michael Toles (Bobby Bland, The Bar-Kays) on guitar; Lester Snell (Albert King, Isaac Hayes) on piano and organ; James “Jimi” Kinard on bass; and a top horn section that includes Marc Franklin on trumpet and flugelhorn; Lannie McMillan on tenor sax; and Jim Spake on baritone sax. Backing vocals are provided by Iseula Hingano and Nicole Nehemia.
The album takes off with some sweet guitar and organ and McNamara’s soulful voice. A McNamara original, One, Two Of A Kind sets the bar pretty high and the horn section harkens back to that great STAX sound, no surprise considering the pedigree of some of the players. It’s a great opening and I can’t wait to hear what’s coming next.
A slow burning number, kind of like Fever, Bad Reputation, smolders with some great vocals and horns. It’s a great blues/soul number and one that’s got to satisfy just about anybody who grew up on – or loves - that Memphis sound. The first two songs down and I’m impressed with his vocals and songwriting. McNamara plays a mean lead guitar as well.
The first cover comes from Don Robey and Henry Boozier. Originally recorded by Bobby “Blue” Bland, Ask Me Nothing (But About The Blues), a bold choice considering Bland’s reputation as one of the greatest voices to ever sing the blues. McNamara does a credible job with this version relying on Snell’s keyboards and that excellent horn section. It’s a great ballad and one that is certain to move just about everyone who hears it.
Next is another McNamara original, Wild Out There. It’s a slower intense number that carries a lot of weight. McNamara’s vocals carry the song with a little help from Snell and the horn section. He’s proven that he is a great interpreter of the soul/blues genre and at this point I want to see how he works with an audience. I have a feeling he connects on several levels and sine this is only his sophomore effort, I predict that he’s got some great albums yet to be recorded.
He slows things down considerably for the next track, Under The Weight Of The Moon. It has the feeling of a large scale big band vocal experience complete with lush musical arrangements and snapping fingers. It’s long on cool and attitude. I always liked this kind of song, and this one is no exception. Some of my contemporaries don’t seem to have the patience for a song like this, but for me, it’s like a delicious Scotch, made to savor and sip slowly…
McNamara and company stay with that old-school sound on One Impossible Night. His guitar punctuates and his vocals have a bit of that ‘40’s swagger behind them. With just a little push it could be a real swinging number, but by keeping it more under control it allows the musicians to build the song nicely.
It’s hard to spend so much time on that Memphis sound without paying homage to Otis Redding. McNamara has chosen to record Redding’s Security, and his vocals step up to the challenge. So much of Redding’s work has been overdone, but this one sounds fresh and the band beautifully recreates that great sound.
Blind Man starts out with some seriously dramatic music. It’s almost cinematic in its approach and McNamara tells the story beautifully. It quickly becomes a noir classic with Potts’ drums sounding great. This guy is so good, I haven’t been able to single out one weak song so far.
There’s a touch of swinging funk behind You Wouldn’t Wanna Know. McNamara reaches deep to bring out these vocals and the horn section adds just the right emphasis throughout. It’s a fun song and should easily garner some airplay.
He brings the album to a close with Suffering With The Blues. This might be the closest thing to a traditional blues song, but true to his sound, it’s a blues song filtered through his unique retro sound. He’s put together a great album through and through with ten solid numbers that are Memphis flavored – full of spice and that powerful beautiful sound.
John McNamara is the real deal. Sometimes, when I’m listening to an artist for the first time, I like to imagine whether they could fit in any other era of the blues. Some of the guitar shredders might have been at home in the psychedelic ‘60’s, but McNamara could have fit in with just about any time. He would have been the leader of a big-band, or he could have fronted a tight group like the MG’s.
I am very impressed with his work on Rollin’ With It. His arrangements, which were handled by Snell, are impeccable. I stopped trying to predict sales a long time ago, because I am obviously way out of step with what sells today. However, I hope that this finds an audience as it is a romantic album with the kind of cool sound that you just don’t hear nearly enough anymore.
Check out his website, http://www.johnmcnamarablues.com/ to find his albums and tour information. I hope to catch him somewhere down the road, but if you happen to catch him live, please drop me a line and let me know what kind of show he puts on!