The Bluesmasters Featuring Mickey Thomas Releases Today

The Bluesmasters Featuring Mickey Thomas

Real soul transcends all genres of music. R&B “got soul,” to only state the most obvious, but the best rock “got soul,” too. The angelic-voiced singer John Michael “Mickey” Thomas injected revitalizing soul into the pop rocking Jefferson Starship beginning in the late 70s, propelling them to super stardom on the # 1 hits “We Built This City” and “Sara” in 1985. Before joining the band, however, he gained serious roots music credibility when he stepped up to sing the stunning lead vocal in 1976 on stone bluesman Elvin Bishop’s surprise # 3 hit, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.”
Thirty years and counting into his ongoing tenure with the Starship, the amateur cook now turns his sweet and sour voice to a discriminating selection of choice covers and creates a spectacular musical statement with The Bluesmasters, testifying with sweaty fervor to his rock audience while making true believers of blues fans. As if to acknowledge his years of preparation and knowledge of the material, Thomas recorded all his vocals in one take.
The Bluesmasters name is no idle boast. Ace guitarist/producer/music publisher Tim Tucker and pianist Sean Benjamin, who plays on two tracks, formed them in 2007. Using his vast experience and contacts, Tucker assembled a tight, tough ensemble behind Thomas with the fatback drumming of legendary British bluesman Aynsley Dunbar, bassist Danny Miranda, organist Ric Ulsky, harmonicist Doug Lynn – the featured soloist – and the addition of a number of guest artists. Thomas has a connoisseur’s taste as well as unbridled confidence in his ability, and he ranges from prewar country blues to postwar electric Chicago blues, Kansas City shuffles to R&B, and even a classic rock number and an original. No slavish imitator, he interprets the selections afresh as shown right off with a down and dirty boogie shuffle version of “Cherry Red” originally made famous as a straight forward swing tune by shouter Big Joe Turner and boogie woogie piano man Pete Johnson in 1939. Thomas swoops from a growl to his vaunted falsetto as Lynn echoes with a plaintive harp solo and pianist Sean Benjamin displays his estimable barrelhouse chops. Thomas then takes the postwar blues standard, “Rock Me, Baby,” long identified with B.B. King as a sly, loping shuffle from 1964, and ramps up the energy to a pumping, stomping demand of his uninhibited lust as he airs out his “pipes.” Tucker stings the strings of his axe in “call and response” with Thomas and shares concise solo space with Lynn as both are cheered on by the singer’s exuberant exhortations and unbounded enthusiasm that drives the entire project forward.
Shifting moods, genres and eras, Thomas revisits his signature ballad “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” demonstrating conclusively that he has not lost an iota of his ability to perform this fan favorite in the most expressive terms with significant backing from singers Stephanie Calvert, Thomas’ colleague in the Starship, and Darlene Gardner. The Bluesmasters, while respectful of the original version, mine it for the underlying grittiness of its blues roots in keeping with the overall tenor of their set of songs. Heading south to the fertile musical environs of New Orleans, Thomas gleefully tackles the saucy funk of the 1957 Chris Kenner classic “Sick and Tired.” The band digs a deeper syncopated groove as Thomas plays around with the melody, turning it inside out in cahoots with Lynn and his twisting harp lines. Dynamically changing direction once again, he takes up the challenge of singing the famous 1969 R&B ballad “I’d Rather Go Blind” by Etta James. Where the lady sang with world-weary resignation and heartache, Thomas opts to defiantly proclaim his acceptance of lost love as Tucker and organist Ulsky channel Memphis soul with conviction. “Can’t Get No Grindin’” shows him rebounding in form and content as he transforms the lilting swing of the 1972 Muddy Waters track into a churning shuffle featuring a duet with Chicago blues great Magic Slim. The combination of their opposing timbres and styles lends variety and texture, while Slim’s searing guitar solos cut like a scythe.
Thomas and guest guitarist John Wedemeyer take us all the way back home with “Walkin’ Blues,” the prewar blues standard that is credited to the immortal Robert Johnson and his landmark 1936 recording. On one of the longest cuts in the set, Wedemeyer, whose association with Donnie and Marie Osmond and Wayne Newton belies his authentic blues chops gained with Charlie Musselwhite, accompanies with an appropriately raspy electric slide part as Thomas moans and shouts the blues over the hypnotic “axe fall” groove. Contrasting tempos, the band falls into the subtle and classic slow blues “Third Degree” as sung by Eddie Boyd in 1953. Taking his cue from the original, Thomas turns the heat down to a smoldering glow, drawing out his phrasing that seems to slow time after the barely contained explosive licks played by Tucker in the intro. Both Tucker and Ulsky are given generous solo space and they take advantage of it to pour out their hearts in league with Thomas.
The driving blues rock of “Get Your Business Straight” from the catalog of the late “Master of the Telecaster” Albert Collins in 1972, provides Thomas with the opportunity to strut and jive his stuff while Magic Slim plays a credible tribute to the “Ice Man” with razor sharp fills and a whiny, punchy solo. Keeping the tempo up, Thomas chooses Elmore James’ “Over Yonder Wall” from 1961 that finds Tucker replicating the slidemeister’s patented signature riff. As the band locks into a chugging boogie shuffle, Thomas sings out with the same type of passion that “Elmo” brought to his landmark performances. Organist Ulsky offers a tasty and understated Hammond B-3 solo preceding Tucker’s slashing chorus of blues, as both serve to encourage Thomas to reach deep inside his soul for a howling final verse.
The original R&B ballad “Long Time,” penned by Tucker, closes the record, and the title could be applied to the journey Thomas has taken to reach this glorious point in his career. Addressing the classic theme of how long it takes to heal a broken heart, he again utilizes the occasion on the dramatic, anthemic composition to express his indomitable will to survive and go on. Tucker, as always, accompanies sympathetically and with utter authority, playing a soaring, melodic solo and engaging in a vocal/guitar duet with Thomas in the coda that mirrors the singer’s strong will to survive. Given the current accomplishment, it is a safe bet that Mickey Thomas and The Bluesmasters will survive and thrive into the future.
Dave Rubin, Guitar Edge Magazine

Published in: on March 23, 2010 at 7:40 AM  Leave a Comment  

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