Dangerous thing about the blues: Too many people play it, and crappily at that. Aside from “Smoke on the Water,” blues progressions are the first thing new guitar students pick up. Indeed, if it weren’t for blues (and its bouncier sister, jazz), we wouldn’t have rock-and-roll. But that’s no excuse for millions of people rehashing the same decades-old riffs and pretending they’re breaking new ground. (Or claiming to celebrate the revered masters of the genre, ’cause most of them pale in comparison.)
Go to some blues festivals, and you’ll be inundated with the most predictable roster of acts imaginable. The only way to make it through is to get wasted on cheap beer, aided by the oppressive summer heat in which many of these things take place.
Since a blues ban is out of the question, we will continue to enjoy eons of one-four-five progressions until they drop the bomb. And likely thereafter as well. The blues is the cockroach of modern music.
And that brings us to the new release by Jacksonville’s Mondo Mike & the Po Boys. Nine Lives Down is, at its heart, a blues album, which, if you haven’t gathered by now, doesn’t earn the band a chalk mark in the This Is Going to Be Freakin’ Awesome column. I’m grateful, however, that the record isn’t strictly a blues record, so put a mark in the Thank Robert Johnson This Isn’t Strictly a Blues Record column.
The opener, “I’m Your Fool,” immediately sets the tone in this regard. First line sung: “I wake up in the morning with the blues.” Now these are the kinds of lyrics that make me want to gouge out my own eyes. But what begins as a typical blues shuffle is rescued by a wonderfully melodic chorus from vocalist Brittany Wescott. Wescott is a joy to listen to, and she makes the less tolerable parts of Nine Lives Down quite palatable.
And so goes the entire CD, which is by turns mind-numbingly rote and surprisingly inventive. Bandleader Mike Bernos is a competent blues guitarist, and wisely takes a backseat to the band’s other musicians. His mixing of styles under the blues umbrella — contemporary pop, New Orleans funk, Springsteeny rock — is smart and subtle. He solos infrequently, and when he does, he gives just enough to add to the song.
Don’t look for a half-hour blues riffage blowout. It isn’t there.
The album’s standout musicians are bassist Jeremy Gray and keyboardist Cyrus Quaranta. Gray plays with the restraint of James Jamerson and the flourishes of Jaco. Check out “B-B-B Baby” if you think this balance is impossible to achieve. His is a fantastic performance, to be sure. For his part, Quaranta gets high marks for slaying the B3. I would love to hear more of him and less of saxophonist Richard Garcia, who must be Bernos’ Clarence Clemons, as he’s all over Nine Lives Down. This isn’t a slight on Garcia’s ability. He’s fine, but he’s also painfully omnipresent.
Drummer Sam Rodriguez is dead-on, laying down a solid foundation and working symbiotically with Gray to support the band. The original song “Higher Ground,” maybe the best tune on the record, is a perfect example of how in sync Rodriguez and Gray work together. The track could easily have been a hit before the days of digital downloads.
The real star in the Po Boys isn’t a boy at all.
Wescott’s contribution here cannot be overstated. She’s a singer’s singer, soulful and melodic, powerful and sublime. She lifts each song and makes it her own, as a true vocal stylist should.
A note about the cover art: Points off for the guitar with a beret hanging from its horn; bonus points for the cute kitty. So, in the end, that’s a wash.