Tucked away in the town of Westerly on the southwest border of Rhode Island, the Knickerbocker Cafe has enjoyed a rich blues history, having served as the site of a regular gig from the hometown Roomful of Blues for a decade and a half in addition to hosting such national artists as Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Big Joe Turner, and Eddie Cleanhead Vinson through the years. In 1980, harp giant Big Walter Horton shared the club’s stage with guitarist Ronnie Earl (who was still going by his given name of Ronnie Horvath), fellow harmonica player and vocalist Sugar Ray Norcia, and other members of Norcia’s band the Bluetones in a performance immortalized on JSP Records’ recently re-released Live at the Knickerbocker, believed by some to be the last recording of Horton before his death the following year.
If all that wasn’t enough to put the Knickerbocker on the map, then a new release celebrating the spirit of the club – as well as quite a few of the voices and musical talents that have played there over the years – surely is. Entitled Open Mic at the Knick (JP Cadillac Records), the recording asembles a stellar lineup of musicians and singers from across New England and around the U.S., collectively dubbed The Knickerbocker All-Stars.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the album has a deep Roomful of Blues flavor, featuring a full horn section that happens to include longtime Roomful alto and tenor sax player Rich Lataille as well as a number of former Roomful personnel in the likes of band co-founder and Westerly native Al Copley on piano and Fran Christina (later of the Fabulous Thunderbirds) on drums, with one-time vocalists/harmonica players Curtis Salgado and Sugar Ray Norcia also each making appearances. Add to that the talents of frequent Roomful guest and native Rhode Islander Johnny Nicholas, Texas blues belters Malford Milligan (Storyville) and Willie Laws, renowned keyboardist David Maxwell, and the members of local blues band Ricky King Russell and the Cadillac Horns, and what you’ve got is a pretty fine-sounding outfit that’s every bit deserving of their “All-Stars” designation, as they prove through this baker’s dozen of blues, R&B, and soul covers.
It all kicks off with a swinging “You Upset Me Baby” (B.B. King) that features some lively horns, rollicking keys from Copley, and impressive guitar from Russell in addition to strong vocals from Norcia, just the type of song that captures Sugar Ray at his finest. Things stay swinging as Milligan takes the mic for a slick and solid take on Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn on Your Love Light” before Laws slows it down with a smooth, soulful “Mother-in-Law Blues”.
Milligan takes a grittier approach on vocals his second time around, returning for the funky, horn-soaked “Love Disease”, then handing things off to Nicholas for tough but patient deliveries of both “Jelly Jelly” – featuring some great piano fills and mournful horns to nicely match the mood of such lyrics as “it’s a downright rotten, rotten, rotten, rotten, baby, lowdown dirty shame/ the way you been treatin’ me baby, and I know I’m not all to blame” and “jelly roll killed my papa, and caused my mother to steady cry” – and then the Lowell Fulson classic “Reconsider Baby”.
Norcia returns to the mic for a boogie-woogeying “It’s Later Than You Think”, before fellow former Roomful vocalist Salgado steps up and knocks one out of the park with a rousing “Ain’t That Lovin’ You” that serves as one of the finest examples of the band’s abilities, with Salgado’s powerful vocals and some punchy horns helping to build to an impressive crescendo and then abruptly giving way to a quiet, jazzy sway.
Laws provides some Salgado-like soulfulness on Eddie Boyd’s “Five Long Years”, also including a terrific guitar solo from Russell, with deep-voiced J.P. Sheerar taking the lead on a creeping, horns- and keys-filled version of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Somebody’s Got to Go”. Bostonian Brian Templeton‘s full-out vocals on the stinging “I’m Tore Down” that follows could easily be mistaken for those of the Phantom Blues Band’s Mike Finnigan, but that’s just really one of many good reasons to check out this track, along with its exquisite horn stops and superb guitar.
Nicholas is back for one more, a growling, Duke Robillard-style take on Eddie Jones’ “Along About Midnight”, before the band lets loose with a rocking “Going Down”, a tune on which Fran Christina (who shares drumming duties in the All-Stars with his brother Bob) played with Freddie King during the blues guitarist’s appearance at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival. Recalling Boston musician David Maxwell as the piano player on that live set, the band invited Maxwell to also join them on their recording of the song, making for both a nice historical touch as well as some fine listening.
We can’t say enough good things about Open Mic at the Knick, a remarkably strong, diverse, and solid offering from what might be considered the east coast’s equivalent to the California-based blues supergroup The Mannish Boys. The liner notes describe the album as “a composite of some of the best blues, R&B and jump blues songs ever recorded” but here’s hoping the All-Stars can come up with more of the same for at least one or two follow-up recordings.