I’ve been a fan of Forrest McDonald before I even knew who he was. How was that possible? If you remember Bob Seeger’s iconic Old Time Rock And Roll, there was that guitar riff. After I heard it the first time, I couldn’t get it out of my head. You know who wrote that riff? You got it, Forrest McDonald.
Flash forward a number of years and Henry and I are trying to get our show, Time For The Blues, up and running. We cut a couple of demos, and as the station had maybe 50 blues CDs and none of them really current, we were kind of nervous that we wouldn't get picked up. The first two demos were pretty bad – if you think we’re kind of over the top now, you should have heard us way back then.
The third time was the charm, and one of the songs on that demo belonged to Forrest McDonald.
Later, I found out that McDonald lived not terribly far from the station, and I’ve been trying to get him to come in for an interview, but the man is constantly busy. He’s always on the road, and not too long ago, he was touring overseas.
Despite his hectic schedule, we’ve somehow managed to become friends and I was eagerly waiting for his new album, Stand My Ground, to be released so I could review it, and share it on the show. When we ran into each other at a local concert, he said he was going to send me an advance copy, and if I liked it, I could write about it.
Since you’re reading this, it’s safe to say I liked it. I liked it a lot.
McDonald has surrounded himself with some very talented musicians. Aside from his work on the guitar, lead singer Becky Wright has developed a following of her own. Her voice is powerful enough to cut through steel, but when she turns on the purr, your heart will melt. John Hanes does a solid job on the drums; Pix Ensign is on harp; and Lee Gammon delivers the bass.
Here's a sneak peek at the album…
Some nice choppy guitar opens up Guitar String Blues, and Wright’s voice is honed to a razor-sharp edge. Ensign does a great job on the harp, and the song plays straight into a major blues subject – somebody leaving and taking just about everything. McDonald holds off on taking his guitar out for a run, but when he lets loose, it’s a satisfying run.
Next up is a reworking of the first song of McDonald’s that we ever played on the show, Chicken Scratch Boogie. Richmond’s own Roddy Barnes played the keys. Wright’s got an extra boogie chromosome to make this one swing the way she does. It’s still a favorite of mine and this is a nice remake.
The one song of Screaming Jay Hawkins that everyone knows is I Put A Spell On You. A staple at Halloween, it’s been covered by dozens of performers. Wright takes a different approach to the song, coming at it with smooth vocals and the song ranks up there with some of the best renditions of it. Listen for it this Halloween, I guarantee you will hear it…
Next up is the title track, Stand My Ground, which opens with some unusual drum work from Hanes. Wright’s voice is vulnerable as she works through the pain in the song. When McDonald finally brings in his guitar, it adds a great deal to the song. It’s a solid blues effort.
The follow with Turnaround Blues, a gentler blues song that features some good harp work. Every song makes me more impressed with Becky Wright’s voice, and the way McDonald blends the elements of his band into one cohesive unit is admirable. I’ve had the pleasure of catching them live on more than one occasion, and this album is a good representation of what you would see when you catch them in concert.
The next song, Certified Blue, is a gorgeous torch song that is lit by Wright’s amazing voice. It’s one of those highlight songs where a singer can stand behind a microphone and hold the spotlight for as long as she wants. The musicians keep their instruments muted somewhat and that allows her voice to command the stage. Great song!
I Am A Stone starts out low and slow with some lovely guitar work and Wright’s vocals sounding distant and emotional. Forrest and sometime writing partner Lawrence Proman wrote the and lyrics did a great job. McDonald has switched guitars and it sounds like he’s playing in a Latin style while Pix Ensign’s harp is plaintive.
There’s some serious boogie going on with The Feeling Is Gone. Got to love that choppy guitar and saxophone backing up Wright. It’s a rocking number with just a hint of jazz. McDonald even holds back on his trademark guitar runs, but Jeff Shellof has a lot of fun with the sax.
Some nice blistering harp opens up Piney Brown. This is old-school blues with a solid Chicago style. Wright sashays into the number and begins to use her biggest voice to great effect. Enter McDonald’s guitar run and the whole song comes together in a crowd pleasing way.
The band keeps the tempo up with the next track, Take It To The Top. Wright’s vocals are solid, Ensign works the harp and the rhythm section keeps it tight. It’s a good number.
The band then slows things down for the lovely and powerful River Of Tears. Wright steps up to the microphone and opens up with emotional vulnerability while the musicians keep their sounds lower and more in the background. Everyone is in good form and this is a terrific song.
They start rocking again on Till The Morning Light. McDonald’s guitar work is superlative on this one and he owns the first part of the song before giving way to Wright. It’s a fun, upbeat bouncy song that is almost guaranteed to get an audience out on the dancefloor. This is the kind of song that I could see as either an opener or a closer for a live set. And you better believe you’re going to hear it on our show – and many others – shortly.
The band decides they have to have one more, and have included Riding On The Blues Train as a bonus track. It’s a different kind of number, even with McDonald’s cool fretwork, it just seems a little more countrified. It’s a cool number however and an interesting way to bring it all to a close.
It’s good to see the Forrest McDonald Band back in the studio again. They’ve been on almost continuous tours and even represented the River City Blues Society twice at the Blues Challenge in Memphis. In 2015, they made the semi-finals and might have gone further except for an ill-timed bout of laryngitis.
If you go to the band’s website: http://www.forrestmcdonald.com/, you’ll discover his extensive catalog, find out his itinerary, and even sample a song from the album. When you see that they are going to be near you, book those tickets early and have a great time.