The snow is still falling in thick, feathery flakes outside my window and that makes it hard to believe that I will ever be sitting outside on a patio again - draft beer close to hand, sunglasses atop my head – happily absorbing the steady thrum of blues bass that takes up residence in my chest wall. Ahhh yes, the stage is now set for really good things to happen ...
Okay, so this is something that I believe Jeff Healey understood and set out to capture when he released his Mess of Blues album. This is an unapologetic, straight up “bar club” album – his words not mine – and it’s a superlative attempt to translate the late night blues experience to a cd. Healey has nothing but pride and genuine admiration for the band he has put together here – often referring to them as ‘best damned bar band in Canada’ – and he does nothing short of gush on the liner notes. The songs chosen are not obscure, they’re well tested crowd pleasers and there are live performances included from Islington, England as well as from Jeff’s own club – Jeff Healey’s Roadhouse - in his native Toronto.
From the very first cut I’m Torn Down with its live intro, the band is off and running and they are on fire and there’s no missing their enthusiasm for the material. Close your eyes and you can very nearly smell the deep fried goodness of the chicken wings sizzling in a nearby basket … hot sauce on the side, if you please …
How Blue Can You Get is up next, a well covered and familiar blues tune if ever there was one, but Jeff injects some freshness and supplies some heart twistingly good bends on his solo at the start. The song lasts an impressive 8 minutes and then some, making the listener hope that it will never end. I especially like the heaviness he’s laid on top of the blues beat here which is something that seems to come naturally to Healey’s music and he knows just how to do it.
There are some unexpected tracks here that still work well such as the Neil Young composition Like a Hurricane which has also been frequently covered by other artists. The band serves up quite a different tempo for the song and Jeff’s vocals are top. It’s a great version of a great song.
I’m saving my favourite for last – you knew I would – and that would be Sittin’ On Top Of The World This is pure perfection with lots of slow, sexy shuffles and solo spots for pretty much everyone in the band. The piano gets a little bit honky-tonk and there’s an extended guitar solo that feels like Buddy Guy meeting Hendrix. It’s also recorded live so the excitement – and it’s palpable – is encapsulated for you to hear.
Tragically, this would be the final album that Jeff Healey would release before his death last year at the age of 41. Although Healey had lost his sight at the age of one, he became a highly proficient guitarist and preferred to play the instrument lying flat across his lap. As well as guitar he also mastered both the clarinet and trumpet and became a huge enthusiast of early vintage jazz, boasting a collection of 30,000 records, many of which were prized 78 rpm’s. Well respected in jazz circles as well as blues and rock, Healey was preparing to tour with his own band The Jazz Wizards before he became ill. The joy and overt passion that Healey brought to his work – as well as really distinctive, plaintive vocals, often overlooked I feel – will be sadly missed. He was an extremely cool guy.
Jeff Healey, guitar/vocals; Dan Noordermeer, guitar/vocals; Dave Murphy, keyboards.lead vocals7/vocals;Al Webster, drums; Alec Fraser, bass/acoustic guitar/lead vocals 4/vocals; Holger Petersen, background vocals.