The Blasters – Fun on Saturday Night – Rip Cat/BMI RIC 1108, 35:39 ***:
(Phil Alvin – co-producer, guitar, piano, harmonica, vocals; Keith Wyatt – guitar; John Bazz – bass, backing vocals; Bill Bateman – drums; Exene Cervenka – vocals (track 2); Eddie Nichols, Jeff Neal – backing vocals; David “Kid” Ramos – bajo sexto)
If you wanted to put together a list of groups crucial to American roots music (the confluence of early rock and roll, r&b, country, blues, rockabilly, folk and more), the Blasters should be in the top ten. The Blasters formed in 1979 in Downey, California soon after the West Coast punk rock scene began to take shape. While the band (started by siblings Dave and Phil Alvin with bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman) was influenced by urban blues masters such as T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner and more, the Blasters’ energetic shows garnered a following among punk fans and stalwarts like X, the Gun Club and others, who also fused similarly-informed music into their set lists. The band declined somewhat when chief songwriter Dave Alvin left the group, but the Blasters have survived, off and on, ever since. During the past decade the Blasters reformed for a string of live performances, which were documented on the concert record, Trouble Bound, a 2002 release which featured material from two performances at the House of Blues in Hollywood. Another series of reunion shows produced a second concert package, The Blasters Live: Going Home (issued in 2004 on CD and DVD). A new studio album, 4-11-44, was released in 2005, two decades after the Blasters’ last LP, Hard Line, came out in 1985. Now, the Blasters have returned again with a lean, 36-minute roof-raiser, Fun on Saturday Night, which keeps the flame alive with a solid, rocking collection of covers and one original.
This time out Phil Alvin (vocals, guitar, piano, harmonica) is united with co-founders Bazz (bass, backing vocals) and Bateman with guitarist Keith Wyatt (who joined in 2008) plus two special guests: Exene Cervenka (X/the Knitters), who is paired with Alvin on an erstwhile Johnny Cash/June Carter Cash song, and Kid Ramos, who adds his string skills to select material. The core quartet kicks off with the jump-oriented “Well Oh Well,” Tiny Bradshaw’s pre-rock, 1950 smash single. This is the kind of hand-clapping and foot-stomping rnb which is readymade to get the party started. Bateman keeps the backbeat thrumming while Wyatt intensifies the arrangement with distorted amplified guitar which has a nasty growl, matched by Alvin’s grainy vocals. Another shindig groover is the title track, an upbeat jaunt which mixes Chuck Berry-styled rock and roll with and driving blues-rock. While Wyatt lays out a six-string solo reminiscent of the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Jimmie Vaughn, the rhythm section hops the beat into high orbit. The only original is Alvin’s dark, end-of-romance ditty, “Breath of My Love,” a doo-wop-inspired track where the protagonist’s bi-polar girlfriend takes paranoia to a threatening, scary level. The punch-line puts the “hero” in jail on a domestic violence rap for defending his life.
There are several noteworthy standouts. Alvin duets with Cervenka on the Cash/Carter hit “Jackson,” which emulates the Man in Black’s strut made famous on Cash’s 1968 classic live release, At Folsom Prison, where “Jackson” was one of several top songs. The Blasters provide stronger instrumental bite and slant more heavily toward rockabilly, which supplies more sting to the outlaw tale: Wyatt once again delivers hard-cutting guitar lines which at times hint at Luther Perkins’ rhythmic stance. Another gem is a surprising rendition of James Brown’s “Please Please Please,” a longtime Blasters concert favorite never before recorded. Alvin’s gravelly voice doesn’t replicate or equal Brown’s soulful swagger, but does help furnish this translation some needed grit. The lean arrangement, however, could have benefited from some complementary horn (oh for the days when former Blasters’ member Steve Berlin wailed away on sax!) or some punctuated guitar. More successful is the old-time country cover, “The Yodelin’ Mountaineer,” an obscure, 1946 B-side for J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers, an outfit which blended traditional string band music with early bluegrass. Alvin’s yodeling, while dead right, is a bit out of left field, although the Blasters’ contemporary rhythm gives this piece a modern spin, and the electric guitar places the timeworn tune into an interesting, new framework. The Blasters conclude with another unexpected but familiar venture: “Maria, Maria,” which takes one of the Blasters’ best cuts, “Marie, Marie” and transforms it into a Tex-Mex inclined, Spanish-language ballad highlighted by Kid Ramos’ bajo sexto (a 12-string guitar often used in Mexican music). While older fans may bemoan the drastically-changed interpretation, it definitely gives something well-known a novel perspective. All in all, Fun on Saturday Night is a genuine and confident return-to-form, although the lack of a shouting sax or a really rollicking piano (not to mention the absence of Dave Alvin) means this material is not on par with the Blasters’ heyday nor can the twelve numbers replace Blasters’ classics found on American Music (1980) or the group’s self-titled 1981 release.
TrackList: Well Oh Well; Jackson; Breath of My Love; Fun on Saturday Night; No More Nights by Myself; Love Me with a Feeling; I Don’t Want Cha; Please Please Please; Rock My Blues Away; Penny; The Yodeling Mountaineer; Maria Maria.
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