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CD Review
Sonny Black and the Dukes
"Free Spirit"
Free Spirit
(12 tracks 41 mins)
By Gordon Baxter
If you want to know just how good British Blues bands are, this offering from Sonny Black and the Dukes is one of the best places to start. The band, a five piece, are augmented by a number of special guests from the British Blues scene, on a selection which features eight original tunes, three covers, and one arrangement of a traditional tune.

The term "Free Spirit" epitomises what Sonny Black and the Dukes are all about. This is a bunch of highly accomplished musicians, who can turn their collective hand to a range of different Blues styles with considerable aplomb. The current line up have been together for three or four years, and it shows. The individual members of the band are equally at home whether in the spotlight, or taking more of a back seat where the boilerhouse (George Pearson on bass and Dino Coccia on drums) swaps seamlessly between Blues and Jazz as the mood of the music dictates.

Things get off to a good start with the title track, an instrumental that positively swings. There is a Blues-Jazz feel to much of the album, so this provides a reasonable taster of what is to follow. Sonny, on guitar, gels perfectly with Mark Ramsden on sax, and Bob Haddrell on Hammond organ. Sonny and Bob also achieve the same levels of synergy on the second track, an arrangement of the Albert Collins instrumental, "Backstrokin'", which is given a nice funky edge.

There are only two tracks featuring vocals on the CD. Guest vocalist Earl Green gets his first chance to exercise his tonsils on the third track ("Love at First Sight"). This is another tune that really swings. Green later resurfaces to close the proceedings with a B.B. King ballad, "Understand". The band manage to carry it off thanks to some fine low key piano work from Danny Smith, who also gets the chance to show off his boogie woogie skills on a couple of tracks. On the self-penned "Southside Stomp", Smith works up a real sweat, squeezing more notes into three minutes than most people manage in a lifetime.

A couple of slower numbers are included, judiciously positioned to let you get your breath back. On "The Nighthawk", Sonny demonstrates his dexterity with the National Steel, a tune which fuses together elements of "The Sky is Crying" and "Rock Me Baby" with a large dose of originality. Later he achieves a fantastic resonant tone on acoustic guitar on "Blues Side", which sees the guitar and sax in perfect harmony. There is a real laid back late night feel to this one, which is further enhanced by some very understated Hammond organ.

Devotees of amplified harp will be more than satisfied by "Zip Your Lip". Alan Glen (who also plays full time with the Yardbirds) manages to find a tone which makes him sound every bit as good as Chicago's finest on a tune he wrote himself. This is one of the best numbers that Little Walter never recorded.

Tracks ten and eleven showcase a couple of musicians from another of Britain's finest Blues bands: Paul Lamb and the Kingsnakes. "Walkin' with Mr. Whitehill" sees some more honking horn from Mark Ramsden as Sonny Black and Johnny Whitehill duel it out on guitars. Sonny then switches back to the National Steel for a cover of the Tampa Red tune, "Boogie Woogie Dance". Paul Lamb blows some very fine unamplified harmonica on this one in the best Sonny Terry tradition, complete with hollers.

My only misgiving about this CD-that it all ends too soon-is balanced up by the fact that it weighs in at the low (by UK standards) price of £8.50 Sterling. Having said that, the goods on offer are straight out of the top drawer. Let us hope that this CD is the start of something big.

Distribution of the CD is somewhat limited, so unless you can get along to one of their gigs in the UK, the best bet is to contact Red Lick Records (, a Blues Mail Order company based in the UK. Quote their catalogue number, which is FS100.

This review is copyright © 1998 by Gordon Baxter, all rights reserved.

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