Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Jimmy Regal and the Royals - First And Last Stop

What to make of Jimmy Regal and the Royals?   With a set-up that’s essentially harp and vocals, guitar, and drums, they don’t follow yer typical blues group rules of engagement. Mind you, they’re not quite as stripped down as that on First And Last Stop, because guitarist CJ Williams also contributes bass and lap steel when occasion demands it, and harmonica man Joff Watkins picks up a guitar now and then to augment Williams’ picking.  And what’s more, they call on a gaggle of horn players for some tracks, plus djembe player Alan Hughes, and backing vocalist Tricia Davies Nearne here and there.
Jimmy Regal & The Royals - "Which one's Jimmy?"
So what kind of sound do they make from these varied resources?  Well, the Royal boys don’t plough a single furrow, and dare to be different on several tracks.  But the results include some pluses and also some minuses.
Among the high points are ‘Empty Streets’ and  ‘Bones To Dust’, both of which show their handy way with North Mississippi Hill Country influences.  ‘Empty Streets’ majors on a revolving, typically hypnotic North Mississippi guitar groove, peppered with slide remarks and some zinging soloing from Williams to create interesting textures.  And later on ‘Bones To Dust’ deploys a classic push-pull guitar riff’n’rivvum, which they then play around with to good effect, adding a halting, interesting guitar break from Williams, a bee-buzzing bridge, and a punchy sax intervention from Chris Rand.
They also have fun on a couple of tracks that travel further down the Mississippi.  The opening ‘(Got To Make A) New Flame’ has a tub-thumping rhythm, some fuzzy rhythm guitar, and a second-line funk vibe from the horns that hints at N’Awlins, with an appealing chantalong chorus, and a pinging guitar break from Williams.  And penultimate track ‘Fat Man’s Chicken’ is something of a Cab Calloway-like blast, with paradiddling drums, shouted out chorus, more NOLA-like horns – including a piercing trumpet solo from Titch Walker - and a train-chugging harp break from Watkins.
They’re interesting too, when they tap into some different blues roots.  ‘Ain’t Done Yet’ for example, brings together tripping drums, bobbling bass and Morse Code horns, but most interestingly some undulating guitar work from Williams that suggests he’s been listening to Malian types like King Sunny Ade and Songhoy Blues.  Rippling guitar and djembe percussion are also key to the title track, which develops a mesmeric feel even as Tricia Davies Nearne chips in with backing vocals and Watkins adds a layer of tootling harp.
A different upbeat moment – and a familiar-sounding one – is ‘You Can’t Run’, featuring tooting horns over a stumbling rhythm and more pattering drums from Sammy Samuels.  It took me a while to figure out what it reminded me of, but ultimately the answer, with the horns and that rhythm, is Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’, embroidered with some spiky, edgy guitar and a squawking harp break.
There are some less positive aspects though, one of which is Joff Watkins’ singing.  He gets better as the album progresses, but on the first couple of tracks, ‘(Got To Make A) New Flame’ and ‘Ain’t Done Yet’, he leans towards a quavering tone that just isn’t my thing.  He sounds a bit more confident on the loping, slinky groove of ‘Can’t Keep From Losing You’, with its woozy slide guitar and moaning harp, but he’s still outshone by Nearne’s warm backing vocals.  And a few songs are on the thin side too, such as the languid ‘Do Whatever You Can’ and the twitching, skipping ‘Show Time’.
Still, credit is due to the Royals for trying to find some new grooves.  When they start playing off New Orleans, North Mississippi and West African sounds they get particularly interesting – and they may have the potential for even better blues-fusion cooking with those ingredients in the future.
First And Last Stop is out now, and is available from Lunaria Records here.

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