By the time this review appears in print, Michelle Willson's latest recording on Bullseye, Wake Up Call, will probably have been released to the public (scheduled for August 7, 2001). However, as I was lucky enough to catch the "Evil Gal" at a recent show in the Twin Cities, I became the very first person in the world (according to Michelle) to purchase her latest release.
Although Michelle Willson has been singing and performing for years, her recent efforts in the blues, backed by the Evil Gal Festival Orchestra (actually a four-piece combo with a big band sound), has developed since 1992. Since its initial formation, Michelle and her band have won the 1993 Blues Foundation National Competition, released three records in addition to Wake Up Call and toured extensively in the United States, Europe and Canada. In 1995, Michelle Willson also received a W. C. Handy nomination for "Outstanding Blues Female Performer" (she lost to Etta James).
Wake Up Call finds Michelle and her band in fine form, coming up with one of their best efforts yet. Backed by four stellar musicians; Ken Clark (B-3 organ), Scott Shetler (saxophone, clarinet), Mike Mele (guitar) and Zac Casher (drums), the band burns though twelve great songs, including five original numbers and seven covers of songs penned by songwriters ranging from roots rocker Dave Alvin ("The Way You Say Goodbye") to swing great Buddy Johnson ("They Don't Want Me To Rock No More"). With Willson's fine vocals and seasoned band, every song on the CD is a gem of jazz inflected blues.
The record has numerous highlights, beginning with the opening title track "Wake Up Call." Including the opener, the first four songs on the CD rank among my favorites, the other three being "Barking Up The Wrong Tree," Buddy Johnson's "They Don't Want Me To Rock No More" and "Leap of Faith." I was particularly thrilled to hear the sound of a clarinet on "Wake Up Call." As a former clarinet player (albeit not a great one), I always wondered how a clarinet might sound in a blues combo; now I know.
In addition to Willson's exceptional voice, the songs include a nice mix of horn, guitar and keyboard solos that adds to the listenability of the recording. Ken Clark's organ is excellent and does a great job of filling in the sound, as does Scott Shetler's on the horns. Guitarist Mike Mele is not as prominent in the overall mix, but his solos are excellent, well-placed and entertaining.
Among the originals, my favorite song is probably "Set You Free," a song with a hypnotic Bo Diddley-type groove and lyrics that talk about letting a man go, even if you love him, because he is just no good. "Crazy, Crazy" is another fine original about the crazy world we live in and how much crazier it gets every day.
Michelle Willson is an enormous vocal talent. With quality recordings like Wake Up Call, one can only expect good things for her and her band. To get your own copy of Wake Up Call, check out the Rounder Records website at www.rounder.com or any retail or e-tail music outlet.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.