Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Kirk Fletcher - My Blues Pathway

Given that Kirk Fletcher is known first and foremost as a standout blues guitarist, it may seem odd to kick off a review of his latest album by talking about lyrics.  But hey, stick with me a minute here, huh?

Seems to me there’s a theme that emerges from a few songs on My Blues Pathway.  ‘Struggle For Grace’ is about the challenge of pushing troubles aside to make the best of yourself.  The Sonny Boy Williamson cover ‘Fattening Frogs For Snakes’ is about no longer doing the hard graft only for others to reap the benefit.  And in selecting Chris Cain’s ‘Place In This World Somewhere’, Fletcher also makes an assertive statement about the day-to-day trials of trying to

You're holding that guitar all wrong you know, Kirk.
Pic by Rick Gould
carve out a space for yourself.  It sounds to me like our Kirk is expressing a determination to make his musical efforts count, to be seen not just as a guy who “coulda bin somebody”, but as an artist whose work really does get attention.
Well, I reckon that with My Blues Pathway Fletcher shows that at his best he’s not just an outstanding blues guitarist, he’s an out of this world blues guitarist.  The first time I saw him live he blew me away, and several tracks here attain that same rarefied level.  This is a guy who can play within the constraints of the blues framework, but also come at you from fresh angles – and without resorting to raw speed.

Take ‘Struggle For Grace’.  On a fluid intro Fletcher effortlessly evokes BB King, all sweetness.  He gets his lyrical point across with a strong vocal, and then moaning horns create a floating backdrop for a fluttering solo of terrific control and lightness.  The outro shows his mastery of tension and release too, but that’s just a warm-up for what he does on the later ‘Heart So Heavy’.  Another self-penned song, it’s a classic slow blues in a minor key, featuring lots of interaction between his soulful vocal and responsive guitar licks.  Then Fletcher produces a couple of solos that go from teasing restraint, hanging back and hanging back, into sudden shifts of gear into higher revolutions, while he adds in twists and turns to wrongfoot you in the most beguiling way.

He can do this on more upbeat stuff too, like the funky cover of sax player AC Reed’s ‘Rather Fight Than Switch’, on which fun guitar breaks abound as he grabs your ear with an unusual wobbly guitar tone, and horns come in to fatten up the song for a bright ending.  Or the way he plays around with a discordant riff on the Texas blues-styled ‘D Is For Denny’, a tribute to his friend Denny Freeman on which some combinations of notes are enough to make me wonder if Fletcher is playing two guitars at once.  Meantime, on the light and breezy funk of ‘Place In This World Somewhere’, his solo plays around with the melody in a way that serves the song beautifully, before he conjures up some jazzy handbrake turns en route to a brief, bleeping fade-out.

‘Place In This World Somewhere’ is, however, one of the occasions when Fletcher sounds out of his comfort zone vocally, as is also the case on the single ‘No Place To Go’.  But he's more at home on the smoothly funky Robert Cray-style blues of the opening ‘Ain’t No Cure For Downhearted’ – also featuring a zippily neat and precise solo – and the gospel-tinged soulfulness of ‘Love Is More Than A Word’, and elsewhere he produces the most confident vocals I’ve heard from him to date, not least on the aforementioned ‘Heart So Heavy’.  And he relaxes nicely into the closing ‘Life Gave Me A Dirty Deal’, a simple old-style blues based on just guitars and harp, on which he’s content to yield the instrumental foreground to Josh Smith on resonator guitar and Charlie Musselwhite on harp – the latter stealing the show.

My Blues Pathway isn’t end-to-end brilliant - it takes a few songs to get up a head of steam, and there are those dips vocally.  But when it’s good it’s bloody marvellous, with strong songs and arrangements - and get ready to prick up your ears for some truly great guitar playing.

My Blues Pathway is released by Cleopatra Records on 25 September

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