A Force of Nature is the title of the enthralling debut release of Sari Schorr on Manhaton Records. Although this qualifies as her solo recording debut, Sari is no newcomer to the blues scene having toured with Popa Chubby and Joe Louis Walker in addition to being a recent inductee of the New York Blues Hall Of Fame. A Force of Nature includes three well-conceived tribute cover interpretations and nine original compositions by Schorr, a fine songwriter who composes great melodies and often crafty lyrics.
Sari Schorr is a powerfully commanding vocalist, who in the manner of some of her contemporaries (Beth Hart, Joss Stone, and Janiva Magness), is skillful at interpretations of other artists songs, while writing strong songs of her own. She, of course, has a unique voice all her own, but like those other female vocalists mentioned above, Sari shows a boundless capacity when it comes to conveying heart-felt emotion. She is skilled in the utilization of controlled phrasing, dynamics and presentation with vocals splashed with a touch of bluesy sandpaper grit.
“My mother says I was singing before I could walk!” ~ Sari Schorr
Sari’s backing group, The Engine Room was formed in the UK to undertake a UK and European wide tour to mark the release of A Force of Nature. The Engine Room is navigated by the fierce guitar work of Innes Sibun who toured with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant after Plant’s Fate of Nations release in 1993 and set in on Plant’s 66 to Timbuktu and Nine Lives album sessions. Drummer Kevin O’ Rourke has teamed previously with Sibun as a member of the Innes Sibun Band. Kevin Jefferies on bass guitar and Anders Olinder on keyboards capably complete the basic group. Guest artists also add to the layered texture, with most notably guitar great Walter Trout gracing one song and young British blues sensation Oli Brown offering his talents on three others.
The legendary producer Mike Vernon, who helmed the 1960’s British blues explosion from his production chair at Decca Records Deram label and later his own Blue Horizon imprint, adeptly oversees the proceedings on A Force of Nature. Vernon had a supporting hand on some of the seminal blues recordings from that period and beyond. John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton (the album that introduced British blues to an American audience), Mayall’s A Hard Road (featuring guitarist Peter Green), Fleetwood Mac’s earliest recordings such as English Rose (with the gorgeous “Albatross”), Black Magic Woman and Blues Jam in Chicago are prime examples. Vernon would also produce Christine (later McVie) Perfect’s treasured self-titled solo upon leaving Chicken Shack, and Freddie King’s Burgler (one of the Texas Cannonball’s finest albums).
“Sari Shorr’s vocal prowess is almost second to none; she stunned the musicians and studio crew alike with the most hair-raising and emotional of performances. On occasion we truly didn’t know whether to jump up and applaud or wipe away the tears.” ~ Mike Vernon
Schorr opens A Force of Nature with “Ain’t Got No Money,” a song that demonstrates her striking ability to belt out a mighty-fine blues shouter sort of song soaked with vocal sass. The song is also a showcase for Innes Sibun on lead to expertly pay inspiring respect for one of his primary blues guitar influences; B.B. King. Sibun enjoys a potent presence on a majority of these songs and his blues guitar expertise establishes a great grouping with Sari’s high-flying vocals.
Schorr employs a husky Melissa Etheridge type style on “Aunt Hazel.” Aunt Hazel is one of the many street slang names for heroin. The song begins with a happy cow-bell beat, but the lyrics are not in any respect happy. The message “I’m in trouble” and “I’m in trouble again” are repeated abundantly. This reminds me of the great Bob Dylan’s “Trouble” where his chorus is “trouble, trouble, trouble, nothin’ but trouble.” Anyone with a family member, or friend, who has struggled with this form of trouble knows the damaging extent with which this addictive narcotic can effectively wreck a person’s life.
The brooding “Damn The Reason” takes off with supple guitar licks provided by British Blues sensation Oli Brown that are highly reminiscent of the rhythmic effect found on Tom Petty’s classic “Stop Dragging My Heart Around.” Brown, present on three cuts on A Force of Nature, is a rising young star whorecords for Ruf Records, with his past two releases being produced by Mike Vernon. The lyrics, sang superbly by Schorr, relate to the erratically fickle quality of love.
“Cat And Mouse” displays funky wah-wah guitar, excellent percussion, and lyrics that concern someone who is sick and tired of being toyed with or tormented. Sari sings this one with some serious attitude. Lyrics such as “I’m ready for adventure coming down the line, I ain’t looking for somebody who’s gonna sell me another lie” and “I ain’ ready for a steady rollin’ Tom and Jerry life” are incorporated to drive home her point. The song employs a rock/funk groove, some distorted guitar, and a nice mid-song string bending guitar lead.
Sari achieves a first-rate piece of work on her rendition of Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter’s “Black Betty.” The raw original version by Leadbelly, the famous Folk and Blues Songster, back in 1939 contained his piercing vocal supplemented only by his hard-strummed acoustic 12-string guitar. The arrangement attained here is enhanced by a full band treatment. Sari convincingly channels the defiant spirit of Leadbelly, a singer whose style was certainly shaped by his survival of a tumultuous life enduring Jim Crow racial tensions and serving several extended stretches behind prison bars. The lead guitar solo mid-song is extra-nice and reminds my ears of a familiar riff that I just can’t put my finger on.
The finest moment of A Force Of Nature could arguably come on Walter Trout’s touching “Work No More.” Sari sings with such soulful anguish while Trout parades his technical dexterity on guitar throughout the cut, even providing some crying guitar effects at the very end. The song examines the heart wrenching subject of the death of a beloved friend. John Baggott on organ and Dave Keys on piano cleanly assist on this song taken from Trout’s Relentless release. The immortal Johnny Winter was once quoted as listing this as one of his most-liked songs ever. Trout is a good and expressive vocalist in his own right, but here he leaves the singing in Sari’s most-competent hands.
“Demolition Man” is a song with an insistent blues shuffle beat guaranteed to have your head bobbin’. Containing bottleneck slide guitar, Hammond B-3 organ and a chugging rhythm section, The Engine Room cooks throughout this number. Schorr’s vocal is fine as frog’s hair, with her singing snugly fitting the song like a well-tailored suit.
Schorr sings the jazzily spacious song “Oklahoma” with a sultry soulful blues slant that is irresistible. The tune also features Oli Brown with a guitar tone that mimics the open/modal tuning used by David Crosby in the Byrds classic “Eight Miles High.” The prominent retro organ swells are parallel in sound to ones presented years ago by Brian Auger or Ray Manzarek of the Doors. The song lyrics cover a lot of geographical ground; but it remains the vocal and musical ambiance that furthermost captures notice.
Savory guitar in the vein of B.B. King provided by Innes Sibun, combined with the sweeping keyboard artistry of Jesus Lavillas aid in the Schoor-penned “Letting Go.” Sari wrote this slow melancholy blues song in memory of Vernon’s late wife Natalie, and I consider it one of her finest efforts. Containing sage lyrics (“all my dreams belong to yesterday”), Sari sings with a stunningly exquisite beauty and a dripping emotional intensity that is palpable. In fact, her voice is so expressive it nearly cracks from the poignant burden.
“I set out to write achingly honest songs about the beauty and the tragedy of the human experience. I hope my music can be a galvanizing force to inspire, repair and unite people.” ~ Sari Schorr
“Kiss Me” is fueled by the churning combo of Dave Keys on organ and Oli Brown on guitar. The lyrics are full of sensual temptation, with Sari pleading “come on and kiss me.” Her extremely commanding vocal combined with her lyrical imagery (there’s a hummingbird’s wings beating in my chest’) and wisdom (“forever may be shorter than the years gone by”) prove quite enticingly appealing.
The cover of the Hall of Fame writing team of Holland, Dozier, and Holland’s Motown Records chestnut “Stop! In The Name Of Love” kicks the initial version of the song up a notch with a bluesy arrangement that works to a T. It requires self-confidence to attempt to improve upon a song sung previously by Diana Ross, and Schorr has it in spades. Sari is reminiscent of the great Janis Joplin with her begging and pleading phrasing of “haven’t I been good to you?” As usual, the guitar contributions of Innes Sibun are memorably impressive.
The album closer is the fleeting ballad “Ordinary Life.” This one finds Schorr dropping her characteristic grit-laced tone to reveal perhaps her prettiest singing to be found on A Force of Nature. The reflective intelligent lyrics are a reminder to all to enjoy our lives to the fullest and treasure each and every moment. The arrangement is stark, adorned with only a measured and quite lovely piano accompanying Sari. The lyrics read like a beautiful poem with each stanza having the refrain “Oh Lord, I’m grateful for this ordinary life.”
A Force of Nature is a superb powerhouse performance that takes listeners for a passionate ride thanks to Sari Schorr’s undeniable vocal presence. Schorr is a singer who boldly bares her heart and soul to deliver this award-deserving performance of sultry and soulful blues music. It’s a musical tour-de-force with gratifying variety that holds your attention like a vice.
Randall Parrish is a Senior Editor at Vivascene, with extensive publishing credits at various jazz and blues sites. He is also an avid guitar player whose musical knowledge of jazz, blues and roots music is widely respected. He can be reached by email here: RandallParrish@vivascene.com