Around here, the title of The Bush League’s latest album, James RiVAh, makes perfect sense. The city of Richmond is built along the James River, we refer to our fair city as RVA as in “Richmond, VA,” and most people pronounce the word “river” as “riv-AH” like some sort of non-adenoidal Thurston Howell the Third.
If you are not familiar with The Bush League, they are one of the hardest working bands in the Central Virginia area, a semi-finalist at the 2012 and 2017 IBC, and one of those groups that have all the talent and drive to make a deep mark on the world of the blues.
The Bush League is a tight four-man group and consists of vocalist JohnJason "JohnJay" Cecil, bassist Royce Folks, guitarist Brad Moss and drummer Wynton Davis. For this album, their third, they have brought in some great guest players including Trenton Ayers of the Cedric Burnside Project, Jeremy Powell from Southern Avenue on trumpet and keyboards, Suavo Jones from the Ghost Town Blues Band on trombone, Paul Biasca on sax, and Vince Johnson on harp.
Of the twelve songs on the album, ten were group written by TBL and they’ve chosen one from Fred McDowell and Muddy Waters to cover. They blend together well and help to create a sweet overall mood.
The album starts off with River's Edge, an appropriate title and a funky blues groove that showcases Cecil’s powerful vocals. This one would be right at home with those that like their blues with an edge so sharp it can cut through just about anything in its way…
The Mississippi Fred McDowell classic, Kokomo Me Baby, follows. Trenton Ayers from the Cedric Burnside Project provides the smoking lead guitar and this updated cover may take a few liberties with a song made famous by the man who said, “I do not play no rock and roll,” but the spirit of the song remains.
The next song, Say Yes, slows thins down beautifully and Cecil’s delivery of this sweet ballad features some great horn work from Powell, Jones, and Biasca. Sometimes when watching Cecil work a room, it’s easy to pigeonhole him as a blue-collar performer and one might forget that he possesses a powerful soulful voice that can wring so much emotion from a line. This is a lovely number and adds a deeper dimension to The Bush League.
TBL follows up with Show You Off, with Powell adding his keyboards to the mix. This is more of the soulful funky blues that started off the album and it has a groove that’s deep and tempting for even the most reluctant audience member to get up and boogie on that dance floor. If you ever get the chance to catch these guys live, you won’t be disappointed. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stage with them on a few occasions and they work a crowd like nobody’s business and you can’t help but have a great time when The Bush League is playing.
Muddy Waters’ Catfish Blues follows with its darker, almost ominous opening. Moss’ guitar cuts through the opening and Cecil’s voice punches its way through. It’s a very cool interpretation that allows the band to show some of its depth as no guests are present on this one. A great showcase.
After that is Kick Up Yo Heels, which features Jones on trombone as well as Ari Morris on synthesizer. The song is an up-tempo dance number that features a great turn from Davis on drums.
Long Gone follows that with some old school pleading blues. It’s pure emotion from a man who knows he’s saying goodbye. Cecil’s vocals are processed some and it adds a different feel to the track. The next song, Hearse, has Ayers returning to play lead guitar and as you can imagine from the title, it’s a very dark song and pairs beautifully with the previous track. I’ll be curious to see if they marry the two songs the next time I see them play live.
Tuxedo Blues follows with Vince Johnson playing harp, and Jones, Powell, and Biasca adding their tight horns to the mix. It’s a sweet throwback song and Johnson’s harp takes the group into a slightly different direction. There’s a plaintive sadness in his playing that emphasizes the pain in the lyrics. Really like this song a lot.
TBL gets funky on Moonshine which adds Jeremy Powell’s delicious honkytonk keyboards and the result is a tight dance number that also has some cool lyrics. I like this song a lot and can’t wait to see what the guys do with it live.
Not many things are more sobering than a Cold Shower, and here the guys use this one as a dark reminder of reality. Folks and Davis create a deep pocket and Cecil punches his vocals like he’s fighting for his life. Moss’ guitar attacks and when he drops out, the silence is almost deafening.
The album closes with the raucous What's Wrong With You, which not only features Powell’s keyboards, but the entire band and most of the people who were recording the album adding stomps, handclaps, and hollers to the number. It’s a great way to bring this fine album to an end, and still leave you wanting more.
The Bush League is one of those groups that always seems to have its head down and working. They aren’t flashy, but they are steady, dependable, and make some of the best music I’ve heard on a continuous basis. In Central Virginia, they are almost always in demand as an opening act when a well-known group comes to town, and trust me, in front of an audience there are precious few that do it any better.
James RiVAh is their fifth release, although only the second they've recorded in the studio, and I think it’s some of the best work they’ve ever done. While they continue to set the bar higher and higher for performance, they’ve just raised it for an album as well. There are several good groups that I am fortunate to see on a regular basis, and there are a smaller group that I fully believe are only an eyelash away from making it to the next level and going national, and believe me when I tell you that The Bush League is in that elite company.
Take a couple of minutes and check them out at their website: http://thebushleague.com/, where you can find out more information about getting this great release and learning more about their appearances throughout the south, and hopefully soon, the rest of the country.