Boz Scaggs has been an active member of the music scene for nearly 60 years, and has gone through several incarnations. As a 15-year old in 1959 he became the vocalist in a group formed by his guitarist friend Steve Miller. From his earliest years Boz has been influenced by blues, and specifically southern blues from the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed and Bobby Blue Bland.
His latest album is a tribute to the musicians he has most admired. The result is a stellar piece of work, in which Boz sounds more invigorated and passionate than he has in years, which is saying something, because his recent releases have been uniformly of a high order. There is something magical, though, about covering the artists one has loved the deepest and the longest, and that magic comes through on every cut of Out of the Blues.
A few words about similar projects from other artists: several years ago Eric Clapton released his own take on his influences. That album was, of course, From the Cradle. Clapton summoned up vocal talents we never knew he had (and perhaps Eric felt the same). In 2005 Dion released Bronx in Blue, an acoustic triumph that featured the music of Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, and more. In the past couple of years The Rolling Stones put together an album of covers entitled Blue & Lonesome that featured Chicago Blues (they were Howlin’ Wolf fans as teenagers, and were always a fabulous blues covers band).It was their first studio album in more than 10 years and met with strong sales. My point? – long-time artists primarily known for their original material decide to honour their declared masters, and in so doing are inspired to brilliance. Now it’s happened to Boz, and this long-time Boz fan couldn’t be more pleased.
Boz has always been a first rate vocalist, capable of extraordinary subtlety that combines sensivity to the lyric while maintaining a steady focus on the intrinsical musical worth of the composition. He performs his best, though, when backed by a cracking good group of instrumentalists, such as he assembled on his classic work from 1972 Boz Scaggs and Band, as well as his breakthrough 1976 release Silk Degrees, in which he was backed by the supergroup Toto.
For Out of the Blues, Boz invited the likes of Ray Parker Jr. and Charlie Sexton on guitars, Willie Weeks on bass, famed drummer Jim Keltner, and a co-writer of 4 songs on the record, the abundantly talented Jack “Applejack” Walroth on harmonica. The opening track is a Walroth original entitled “Rock and Stick”, and it sizzles from start to finish, with a strong vocal from Boz in which he summons up a convincing falsetto reminiscent of his early recordings. The voice has deepened, and reveals an earthier tone than on any previous record, but in this he conjures up the blues vocals of the past – Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and yes even the inimitable Jimmy Reed. “Rock and Stick” sets the tone for the album in two ways: the band is tight, and the vocals are superb.
Standout tracks: the Jimmy Reed obscurity “Down in Virgina”, and the Don Robey compositions, “I’ve Just Got to Forget You” (terrific horn arrangements) and the beautiful closer “The Feeling is Gone”, both of which were recorded so well by Bland, and are here given sensitive readings. The real surprise is an unexpected cover of Neil Young’s “On the Beach”, for which Boz creates a somber, restrained mood that somehow complements the balance of the material.
Boz has spoken of this album as the third in a trilogy, the first two being Memphis and A Fool to Care, both of which we raved about upon their release. Out of the Blues is a fitting closer to the series, and the strongest of the three albums. Highly recommended for Boz fans and blues devotees alike.