Gerard and the National Debonaires
Soundgate Records SGP07-0303a 2007
Review by Dale Clark
This is an outstanding new album by a new band of mature players with long musical resumés. Plainly, this is a project of Steve Gerard who begins with
a strong sense of American musical history and means to make that history bend back at least one more time in the direction of the swing sound.
This album earns our attention through stand out performances, fresh writing, and near flawless discipline in conception.
As guitarist, Gerard brings his best game to New Sounds From Kansas City, not as the show stopping soloist but as the master stylist at the spine of the thing who knows the idioms of blues, swing, and jazz so profoundly he can produce the exact effect he is seeking in every song. Mike “Shinetop Jr.” Sedovic lifts songs with his honky tonk piano as on “My Baby’s Gone” and drives the album to its high point with his organ in the “Ain’t Gonna Happen Again” dirge. Patrick Recob skillfully walks the standup bass throughout the album, at times, as in “Heavy Weight Baby,” reminding us of our endless fascination with this remarkable instrument. Andy Graffiti makes the whole project go forward with the kind of pushing drumming that separates good blues bands from the also-rans. In addition, there are guest performances by Fabulous Thunderbirds drummer Jimi Bott, Mike Morgan and the Crawl harmonica player Lee McBee, three time Canadian blues “Horn Player of the Year” Mike Clark, and Anson Funderburgh piano side-kick Doug “Sarge” Rynack. This is a talented and highly experienced group of players, and Gerard and his co-producer Steve McBride deserve tremendous credit for getting great performances from them and for bleeding it together to make vital swing.
The surprise on the album is singer Dave “Elmo” Bailey. Mo Bailey turns out to have a deep throated voice you will never forget. Once through New Sounds From Kansas City, I picked Mo out on the radio after hearing just one line. Bailey is that rare, fine, European American, male blues singer; on this collection he achieves not just good singing in some “beautiful music” sensibility, but becomes a presence and a persona that links the whole thing together and gives it personality.
Gerard wrote six of the songs, Graffiti two; three are from the blues catalogue and one each is by contemporary writers Mike Bourne and Geoff Starin. It is much easier to take a band seriously when they work to bring us something new in this way. All this writing raises questions that first rate musicians should be eager to engage.
In his liner notes Gerard says that this is not the old Kansas City music of Joe Turner or Count Basie, but includes among the notes a series of black and white photos of the long since derelict clubs of the Kansas City blues hey-day. Gerard observes, “Just knowing that at one time there were more than 100 active clubs in the area around 18th and Vine is enough to raise hair on your arm.” And his writing so, was enough to raise some on mine.
But for what the National Debonaires seem to be trying to say, the message is only hair raising-ly middle class and nostalgic. There is some great good humor here. In the opening song “Let’s Run” Mo clues us in that “she is not worth dying for,” and then to her “. . . run, ooo baby let’s run…” But most of the problems here are pedestrian: bad boy road songs, stayin’ out late, and my favorite, “I wanna watch that football game, she said ‘No, no, no! Get out there in the yard—let me see you mow, mow, mow!’” I have a hard time taking this as some deeply ironic commentary, mocking the way blues music has been co-opted and pacified for middle class audiences. It sounds like rueful sexist complaint of middle aged, middle class males to me—almost, and here I really do not mean to offend but only to challenge pointedly, Rush Limbaugh set to music. And the swing sound, a music of motion capable of carrying many messages, in these songs only nostalgically underlines and never subverts this conservative point of view.
This last may be the most important thing for any band trying to revitalize swing. If it is impossible to go from old swing to new swing without wrecking the musical edifice; is it possible to go back to the old swing and find something hiding, as yet undiscovered, among the old sounds, and hook it up to a contemporary sensibility? It seems to me that is where Steve Gerard and the National Debonaires need to go next, to swing us somewhere. This group seems to be up to the challenge.
My recommendation to readers is very clear. If you like swing blues, you must buy this album. If you treasure great male singing in the blues, you should buy this album. And if you run a blues or jazz and blues festival for the summer of 2008, you owe it to yourself and your audience to get in touch with this band.