Saturday, January 6, 2024

Chris O'Leary - The Hard Line

First impressions, eh?  I mean, the first time I played this new album from Chris O’Leary, I kind of half-listened to it while pottering about at something else, and thought “Okay, pretty straight up this-and-that – sounds alright.”  Wrong.
To be honest I’d never heard of him before.  But when I got properly acquainted with The Hard Line, I realised that Chris O’Leary is way better than “alright”.  This guy is a top-drawer blues singer, a teeth-rattling harp player, and a seriously talented songwriter.  All 12 of the tracks here come from his pen, and his alone, and he delivers the goods with plenty variety and no filler.
‘No Rest’ kicks things in Chicago blues fashion, with O’Leary knocking out some wheezing harp
Chris O'Leary gets good and emotional
Pic by Paul Natkin
over a lazily shuffling rhythm, and then giving a first inkling of his quality as a wordsmith with lines about how “Mr Sandman must have lost my address”.  Okay, so it’s not Shakespeare, but it’s fresh, and far from isolated in that regard.  Oh yeah, and just to show off a bit more, O’Leary contributes some of the sparkling guitar breaks that enliven the track.
There’s plenty more of this upbeat kinda stuff.  The brisk and amiable jump blues of ‘Lost My Mind’ picks up the baton right away, with more sharp lyrics and change-ups in the arrangement that hold the attention.  Ivory tinkler Brooks Milgate’s boogie-woogie piano leads the way on ‘Need For Speed’, as the foundation for O’Leary to do his stuff on a fun, rat-a-tat vocal about a woman who’s “never seen a speed limit she didn’t break, and speaking of brakes that’s the pedal she hates”.  And when Milgate whacks out a lipsmacking solo, his left hand pumping away like a piston, O’Leary matches him with a wailing harp break.
‘Funky Little Club On Decatur’ shows the influence of N’Awlins on O’Leary, who relocated there from New York State in 1997 at the behest of Levon Helm, no less.  With its tip-tapping shuffling from Michael Bram on drums, woozy slide from Chris Vitarello, and swooping trombone from Darren Sterud, the tune carries echoes of Royal Southern Brotherhood’s ‘Sweet Jelly Donut’.  Meanwhile ‘Love For Sale’ is a rollicking, high-tempo closer, a rock'n'rollin' good-time boogie about a marriage coming to a crashing end with a yard sale, O’Leary whooping as he insists “Our love’s for sale, I’ll take cheque, cash, credit or card” for all the marital goods.
And all of that is just fine and dandy, but O’Leary really underlines his credentials with downbeat material that’s just as good.  ‘Ain’t That A Crime’ is a slow blues from the voice of a guy brooding about his woman done him wrong, which then takes a darker path, captured broodingly by O’Leary’s characterful low-down vocal and Chris Vitarello’s warped, burrowing wah-wah solo.
But the real cream in the coffee is when O’Leary steps into Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland soulful blues territory with ‘I Cry At Night’ and ‘Lay These Burdens Down’.  Over the former’s dragging beat, and subterranean baritone sax from Ron Knittle, O’Leary lays out the emotions of a vulnerable man, backed up by some emotive guitar work from ‘Monster’ Mike Welch.  Meanwhile ‘Lay These Burdens Down’ is a languidly paced meditation from a troubled man, O’Leary groaning with conviction about the need to “Wash the blood off my hands in dirty water”.  It’s a song with real emotional weight, delivered with sensitivity by O’Leary and his buddies.
There’s plenty more to like here, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself.  Suffice to say that Chris O’Leary is a singer, harp blower and songwriter to compare with Curtis Salgado, but still very much his own man.  And that’s saying sump’n.  With The Hard Line, Chris O’Leary is a guy to give retro blues stylings a good name.
The Hard Line is released by Alligator Records on 12 January.

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