Deb Callahan ‘Backbone’ Album Review

The variety of musical material on Backbone snakes stealthily from soul to funk to blues rock with one constant: the exceptional vocals of Deb Callahan.

I’ve been a fan of Philadelphia-based Deb Callahan’s vocals and songwriting skills for over a decade; ever since first hearing her 2008 release Grit and Grace. The lady combines the attributes of skilled songwriting, a deep appreciation of American roots music, along with her powerfully affecting vocals. At times, her original compositions tell stories and hold profound meaning that prove highly relatable.

For her new, highly anticipated release, Backbone, on Blue Pearl Records, Callahan has written a strong group of new songs, some with a key assist from her sympathetic producer Chris Arms. The release is aptly named, with much of the album adhering to the definition of the word.

The dictionary defines backbone as a central cohesive source of support and stability. Some of the synonyms are keystone, linchpin, lynchpin, mainstay, and anchor. The second definition of backbone is fortitude and determination, with synonyms of guts, moxie, grit, and gumption. Yes, these are indeed applicable on this release.

Callahan had spent the time since her previous release accumulating ideas to help in composing her new songs. Also, she has been continually cultivating the chemistry between herself and her long term bandmates, sharpening their musical skills on the road. Allen James on guitar, Garry Lee on bass and Tom Walling on drums all have developed their chops alongside Callahan, and all provide sturdy support.

When Callahan and her band were finally confident it was time to record, they assembled in the studio with her long time friend and songwriting partner, Chris Arms. Arms had previously been in the producer’s chair for three of Callahan’s releases and, once again, took the reins on this project. Besides aiding on finishing some of the songwriting, Arms provided some slide guitar touches. Arms also brought British keyboardist, producer and songwriter, Danny “Cash” Schogger to further firm up the project with a honing of the songwriting, in addition to supplying some keyboard garnishes.

“I recorded live in the studio with my long time core road band of Allen James, Garry Lee and Tom Walling with the addition of Danny Schogger on the keys. There was a lot of ease and familiarity, so the process was fun and we completed the tracks in two days.” ~ Deb Callahan

Deb Callahan’s Backbone opens with a blues funk song titled “What I’m Working With.” The song is richly supplemented with the horns of Philadelphia’s Jay Davidson on saxophone and Steve Jankowski on horn and trombone. Tasteful and fine funky guitar work from Allen James shines as Callahan sings lyrics that tell the tale in a “what you see is what you get” attitude. She may be this, or may be that, but it’s what she’s working with.

Next comes “Crazy Ride,” another soul/blues song. It opens with a retro-soul guitar and arrangement accompanied by smooth organ from Danny Schogger. Then, “Big Girl Pants” follows, begining with a taste of rocking guitar and containing a steamily sultry vocal from Callahan. The lyrics are relatable to most: concerning sucking it up, despite life handing you obstacles, and facing the world with a brave face. The song has a mid-tempo groove that allows each of the players to glow, while still maintaining the spotlite focus on the vocal. 

“With music, I am always aware of a groove, beat or melody in my head. When I’m feeling a lot, or have a reaction to something, I often write down my thoughts.” ~ Deb Callahan 

A mid-tempo blues treat comes with the song “Rogue.” Allen James’ guitar has a very pleasing tone on the intro and once Callahan’s vocal enters, his guitar echos her vocals in a conversation. On first listen, the tune has a lived-in feel, like I’ve heard it before. Upon repeated listenings it sinks in how really good this song is. Callahan’s vocal is blues honey and the lyrics are inspired. To further raise the ante, the song contains a catchy chorus that sinks the hook firmly. 

A “Few New Tricks” has a strong keyboard melody line and sweet guitar as the tune grooves strongly while Deb’s grit-laced sassy vocal tells of changes in lifestyle that come with added responsibilities. But, the lyrics relate that the “Old Dog,” can still learn a few new tricks. Quite a tasty tune.

A bit of a change of pace comes with a slow hill country blues song titled “Cleaning House.” Callahan’s vocal is clean and clear, accompanied by Arm’s slide guitar as she sings about reconciling her memories of a love that didn’t work out. As she tackles the chore of moving forward, her vocal is charming, yet chilling.

The Americana-tinged song, “Thought You Were My Girl,” has a retro-rhythm that proves quite agreeable on this toe tapper. It sashays gently along, eliciting the desire to sing along on the catchy chorus. Another album bright spot.

The first of the cover songs is “Danger Zone,” a Percy Mayfield and his Orchestra blues song from 1961. Deb and her band turn it into more of a late nite slow blues by replacing the original’s sax parts with guitar. Callahan always excels on her blues vocals; this one is no exception.

The album reaches a fine conclusion with the set’s second cover song, a Sean Costello’s original. “Anytime You Want,” is treated to a fine ensemble reading by the entire group, with a rocking James guitar and a cool B-3 tone laid over a snappy rhythm. Another Deb sass-laden vocal ties the package together.

Female background vocalist Charlene Holloway soulfully sweetens four of the songs on the release, adding a semi-gospel vibe. It’s one of the subtle touches that adds to the album’s appeal. Another very nice touch is the CD’s design and layout from Sherry Berger.

The variety of musical material on “Backbone” snakes stealthily from soul to funk to blues rock with one constant: the exceptional vocals of Deb Callahan. Highly recommended.

Deb Callahan ‘Backbone’ Album Review