Canadian blues artists don't have quite the same history to draw upon as their counterpoints in the USA. Some, of course, do their homework, basing their music on the timeless appeal of the blues tradition and staying relatively close to the tried and true. Others are more concerned with looking forward, using the form primarily as the basis for their own explorations.
The Rockin' Highliners, who started life as a jump blues band, seem to have been drifting further away from that foudation with each successive release; on Sputnik Café, the band's third outing and first for the New England-based Severn Records, they've left what many would consider 'real' blues far behind.
That's not to detract in any way from the quality of the music on Sputnik Café; it simply means listeners won't find a same-old-same-old collection of tired grooves or a collection of solos built around a few verses and a chorus or two. The Highliners opt instead for a tighter, more controlled sound built upon a dense, moody foundation.
The Highliners are led by founding member Robert Tycholis, who I believe writes most of the band's material (advance copies don't include liner notes or credits, nor do either Severn's or the band's websites) as well as handling vocals and contributing thick-toned harp. He's ably abetted by guitarists Clayton Sample and Greg "Junior" Demchuck, drummer Ken McMahon, and bassist Chris Brzezicki; all acquit themselves admirably, again without the usual number of solos endemic to most blues recordings.
But what about the music? Well, most cuts here are medium tempo. There's a bit of harp here and there for texture; and we've already mentioned the relative scarcity of solos. There are only a couple of tunes even close to conventional twelve-bar structure, though neither is lyrically what one would expect.
Other than that, though, it's hard to get a handle on the band's sound. They themselves make no claim to be a 'blues band.' Although there's no shortage of intellect in evidence, and there's nothing tentative about the project, perhaps this is best regarded as a transitory album, one that finds the Rockin' Highliners on the verge of breaking through into something entirely different and altogether new. If nothing else it's a courageous outing, as a search for a new sound presumes a search for new audience as well.
Worth a listen, but try before you buy.
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