They say that “seeing is believing”, and far be it for us to argue that seeing Sugar Ray and the Bluetones perform live when you have the chance is the smartest way to go. But the good news for blues fans is that, in the meantime, just hearing this veteran blues band makes for a pretty darn good time of its own, as demonstrated by the band’s latest album Seeing is Believing (Severn Records).
Back in 2014, we had the pleasure of talking with longtime Sugar Ray and the Bluetones bassist Michael Mudcat Ward about the band’s three-and-a-half decade history, their new (and subsequently highly acclaimed) release Living Tear to Tear, and the magic of their interaction and sound, which Mudcat attributed in part to their collective improvisational skills and the ability to carry their live playing style into the studio. Seeing is Believing finds the band again very much, literally, in the swing of things, providing another rich and thoroughly entertaining offering that’s likely to earn the Bluetones at least as many accolades as the previous.
From the big sound of numbers such as “Blind Date”, a shuffling boogie that opens with the words “Baby, we just met, then you slapped me in the face” (which is something like what this album – or at least this song – might do, in a good way, of course, for the unsuspecting listener), before hitting such other lyrical gems as “if you ain’t havin’ fun, you doin’ somethin’ wrong” and “I don’t forget a face, but with you I’ll make an exception”, and the tough soulful sway of “It Ain’t Funny” to the jazzy shades of the creeping title track and soft ballad “Not Me” (all written by lead vocalist and harmonica player Sugar Ray Norcia), the Bluetones demonstrate a sophistication and range well beyond most bands, with other highlights here including a beautifully passionate instrumental tribute to the late B.B. King in “You Know I Love You”; the clever, insightful observations of the trudging “Two Hundred Dollars Too Long” (“I was only out drinkin’, but the bartender kept bringin’ them on strong/ the next day I found out, I stayed two hundred dollar too long”) and misfortune-filled “Misses Blues” (“I missed the bus, and I missed the train/ I was once on time but still missed my plane/ I misapprehended what I misunderstood/ I missed an opportunity to look under the hood” and “I was misrepresented, a lawyer so outta’ touch/ the judge ruled a mistrial, I swear, he didn’t miss much/ but I misplaced my phone as they frisked me at the door…”), both penned by bassist Ward; keyboardist Anthony Geraci’s swaying leaving-song in “Noontime Bell”; and the slow blues of “Keep On Sailing”, which starts with just Norcia’s vocals and thick harmonica and then brings in the rest of the band about halfway through, with such lyrics as “my boat’s got a hole in it, spoutin’ water like a whale/ you know I’m goin’ down slow, no matter how fast I bail”.
With most of the band having played together now for much of the past three-and-a-half decades, and even “newcomer” guitarist Mike Welch already having been with the band for 16 years, it should probably come as no surprise that the Bluetones sound as tight as they do. And yet surprise and impress are exactly what the band once again manages to do on Seeing is Believing, a feat for which we won’t be at all surprised to see the Bluetones receive a few awards come spring.