How did this one get past me? Maybe because Rufus Black is a bit of misdirection – there is, in fact, no-one called Rufus Black in Rufus Black, a band led by guitar hot shot and sometime Tom Jones sideman Scott McKeon. Whatever, released back in August, this debut album may have taken a while to appear on my radar, but it’s going to be getting repeated plays from here on.
Opening up with the clanking funk rhythm of ‘Shut Up’, the immediate impression is of Free having overdosed on James Brown for a weekend – not least because Gavin Conder’s voice is going to draw obvious comparisons with Paul Rodgers. The following ‘Make A Move’ underlines the Free vibe, but more to the point demonstrates the subtleties the band are capable of deploying, keeping it fairly spare, and closing with a lengthy coda of swirling vocal harmonies as a backdrop to a stinging guitar solo from the fingers of either McKeon or his fellow guitar-toter Ben Jones.
|Scott McKeon and Gavin Condor - not Rufus Black|
They chuck in a few covers that pin their soul-funk influences on their sleeves. The Isley Brothers’ ‘It’s Your Thing’ is the funkiest angle, complete with horns, while ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ and ‘Take Me To The River’ both add twists to the originals to keep them fresh, with the rhythm section of Russ Parker on drums and Leighton Allen on bass laying down interesting grooves.
‘Still Haven’t Seen You Cry’ is an expansive slice of funk that Paolo Nutini might have fancied for Caustic Love, and features some innovative guitar licks and scratchy sounds. ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, on the other hand, takes a rather naff example of modern R’n’B from The Weeknd, and recasts it perfectly as an aching soul ballad on which Conder channels his inner Percy Sledge.
‘Get What’s Mine’ is a straight ahead reading of a restrained funk outing by Devonian singer-songwriter Jon Allen. Nope, I’d never heard of him either. It may not be the strongest tune on show here, but I reckon Signor Allen is still deserving of a bit more research.
The most dramatic venture on display is ‘Whisky Town’. From a moody, minimalist opening, Conder gets cooking, demonstrating great feel in speeding up and slowing down his phrasing, as well as deploying some bluesy moaning to good effect. Then the guitar – McKeon’s, I’m guessing – stretches out beautifully with a controlled, clear-toned, piercing solo. It’s seven minutes worth that goes by in a flash.
The title track brings the curtain down. Firmer and a tad less funk-laden than what’s gone before, it has a suitably anthemic Free-meets-Humble Pie feel on which to close.
Rise Up is another in a catalogue of impressive albums released in 2017. I’m hoping that Rufus Black isn’t going to be just an occasional side project for Scott McKeon and co. I want to hear more of them.