(Keeping the Blues Alive)
4 out of 5 stars
It has been a long while, 15 years to be exact since ex-Wet Willie lead singer/saxist/harmonica player/frontman Jimmy Hall released a solo album. But that hasn’t stopped him from steady work as a sideman to acts as varied as Hank Williams Jr. and Jeff Beck and having Blackberry Smoke as his backup band for a high-profile session at the revival of Capricorn’s Macon, Georgia studios.
It’s especially frustrating that his first two post-Willie solo albums from the early ’80s—both solid Southern soul/rock collections—haven’t made it to CD nor are streaming. So it was time.
Enter Joe Bonamassa.
The blues rock guitarist co-produced and released this Hall comeback on his Keeping the Blues Alive imprint. He was instrumental in its creation by co-writing many of the songs, loaning his band of veteran musicians, and of course playing. Hall, now in his early 70s, hasn’t lost an ounce of his youthful enthusiasm and his soul-drenched vocals are virtually indistinguishable from those of his 25-year-old self on Willie’s Top 10 1974 smash “Keep on Smilin’.”
Longtime fans will immediately be attracted to the feisty opener “Jumpin’ for Joy” that conveys a “…Smilin’”-styled upbeat message, one which continues through the rest of the 10 songs. Hall hits a tough harp break before Bonamassa kicks in with his solo. Like the best Wet Willy music, it sounds like everyone is having a blast in the studio. While it’s impossible to know if there were many overdubs, this sound is of a band working off each other playing live in the studio.
There are a few spiritual moments such as the gospel of “Ready Now” where Hall sings Put my faith in something stronger…my weakness was too strong but I’m ready now to make the changes, adding longtime friend Warren Haynes for a sizzling slide solo that brings the Southern styled religious theme home. Perhaps a few too many tunes pay tribute to his wife (“Without Your Love,” “Holding on for Dear Love,” “The Long Goodbye”), all of them obviously heartfelt. But even if the lyrics veer to the trite side, Hall’s performance is never less than committed, at least enough to excuse some of the sappiness.
The inspirational essence behind “Love for It,” about shaking off the daily blues and just plowing through life with lyrics of Ain’t gonna let no fear stand in my way/Casting shadows of doubt darkening my day/In this time of trouble and pain I have to struggle but I stand my ground, might also appear simplistic. But again Hall’s searing commitment to the concept and the song’s churchy vibe sells it.
An acoustic “Eyes in the Back of Your Head,” written by Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr, ends the set on a stripped-down note, with just Hall’s harmonica and unplugged guitar taking it back to his blues roots.
It’s a classy way to close the passionate and appropriately titled Ready Now, a long-awaited comeback from a Southern rocker who has really never gone away.
Photo Credit: Drew Stawin / Essential Broadcast Media