It’s taken a while for me to get round to it, but on the strength of The Bluest Blues, this summer's release from Main Street Blues, their moniker is a good pointer to the style of this Scottish blues band. Their sound, to these ears at least, descends in a pretty straight line from the Three Kings, through the British blues boomers influenced by them, and on to later exponents of sophisticated electric blues.
The ten-track collection mingles three originals from guitarist and singer Derek Smith, a few familiar covers, and some less common or garden finds from other artists, and it has to be said that Smith’s homegrown material stands up to the competition.
The first of these, the mid-paced ‘Dusty Road’ opens proceedings with gutsy chords and washes of organ to underpin Smith’s vocals, which are mellow and tuneful in a Clapton/Cray vein – it comes as no surprise that they’ve covered Eric’n’Bob’s ‘Old Love’ on a previous album. Smith’s guitar tone is one of his strengths, here and throughout, while John Hay’s five-string bass bubbles away contentedly and Iain Hanna’s keys solo fits in nicely. It all boils down to a pretty good marker for what’s to follow.
With ten songs lasting over an hour, you’ll appreciate that Main Street Blues like to lay back and spread out a bit, but they still succeed in making the time pass by without any dull longeurs. There are a couple of seriously extended workouts in there, with over nine minutes’ worth of Smith’s own composition ‘Move On’, and title track Alvin Lee’s ‘The Bluest Blues’ coming up on the rails. Smith’s tone on the former is excellent, contributing to the mood as he demonstrates good variation in pace on an extended solo, while Hanna contributes meditative organ and, by the sound of it, some subtle synth for additional textures. On the latter Hanna’s keys are also well to the fore, with delicate piano contributing to an imaginative, widescreen arrangement, while Smith’s vocals combine good phrasing and expressiveness. His guitar could be higher in the mix though, and one of my reservations is that sonically they would sometimes benefit from more – to use a technical term – wallop.
A good example would be their reading of Coco Montoya’s ‘Last Dirty Deal’, which features a stinging riff with a very Sixties feel, and tasteful bass from Hay, but could do with more grit vocally, and with the guitar being a bit more in yer face to capture the bitterness of the lyric. But on the other hand Smith’s ‘Cold Cold Bed’ effectively combines gritty guitar chords and surges of organ with a touch of funk and a bit more vocal edge from Smith.
The two familiar friends in the track list are ‘Good Day For The Blues’, which has a tripping rhythm and sunny air to match its winning melody, and an uplifting keys solo from Hanna that melts into Smith’s guitar, and the covered-by-everybody ‘Breaking Up Someone’s Home’, which comes with a fresh, Clapton-ish arrangement that’s all stuttering riff, shuffling rhythm and spangly guitar.
It’s worth noting that due to a bit of a Spinal Tap-style exploding drummer syndrome, MSB were without a sticksman during the recording of the album, and so opted for drum programming by Smith to fill the void. And generally he does an impressive job of it, though on the aforementioned ‘Cold Cold Bed’ the groove gets a tad predictable, and on the ‘Breaking Up Someone’s Home’ the drum sound could be a bit thicker.
Between them Smith and Hanna provide enjoyable bursts of soloing throughout, the latter demonstrating a fondness for Jon Lord-meets-Booker-T organ playing on the likes of ‘Write If You Find Love’, while on Willie Dixon’s ‘The Same Thing’ Smith conjures up a sparkling solo that moves through some revved up chords into a piercing second section and then a lyrical segment dovetailed with the keys – and with good vocal phrasing to boot.
The Bluest Blues is a well satisfying take on modern electric blues with a classic British bent. It won’t take you on a journey to the centre of the universe, but it will keep the home fires burning.