CD review: Bluesy Steve V. & the Knockouts will bowl you over
This disc is all about the groove. It isn't about intricate melodies with complex harmonies. It isn't about deep, elaborate lyrics or trying to answer transcendental questions about man's existence. It isn't about highly polished production or st...
This disc is all about the groove.
It isn't about intricate melodies with complex harmonies. It isn't about deep, elaborate lyrics or trying to answer transcendental questions about man's existence. It isn't about highly polished production or studio gimmicks. It's all about the groove.
Steve V. & the Knockouts are a group focused on music to dance to. It's music to move your body to. It's music to bop your head to and pop your fingers to. Vocals mostly serve as a ramp to smoldering instrumental solos where harp, piano and guitar cut loose and exponentially raise the level of excitement. Musical camaraderie supplants innovation and technical wizardry. It's music from the ground up, sturdy and rugged.
Tested by Texas blues
Leader and ace harp player Steve Vonderharr comes from Billings, Mont. He moved to the Twin Cities in 1969, then fell in love with the blues, first while a student at Minnesota State University, Mankato and then when he moved to Houston and got a firsthand taste of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the many great Texas blues groups. He led a group called Juke City and later added his talents to Out All Night, the Fabulous Minnesota Barking Ducks and the Soulmates. He plays with conviction and purpose, expressively wringing the life out of that little piece of metal and wood like some kind of whirling dervish.
The classic Little Walter (Marion Jacobs) harp instrumental "Juke (Your Cat Will Play)" starts the proceedings as Vonderharr's harmonica cuts like a hot knife through butter.
This tune was once the litmus test for harmonica players to prove their chops. Not unlike Freddie King's "Hideaway" for guitar players, it was essential for a harmonica player to be able to burn through this song note-for-note in a blues cutting contest or you weren't worthy of a spot in front of the mic. Steve V.'s all over this one with lines that swoop and dive, recalling its author and providing some updated wrinkles.
The record is a mix of classic blues gems and a few Vonderharr originals, such as "The Cost of Your Love." This one gives Tom Hunter's piano and the harmonica a chance to blow back and forth like a game of catch that builds and intertwines into the vocal line "... you say you love me but you walk away, I tell you I need you but you can't stay ... the kiss of your lips really make my day ... looks like the cost of your love is more than I can pay."
John Lee Hooker's "Messin' With My Bread" has been a blues staple for 40 years and features the singer chastising his lover for "layin' around all day, and wastin' my money." There's good guitar work here from John Franken as he digs in and works off the melody line to create a solo with fire and backbone.
After-show showin' off
Steve V.'s "My Party Song" sounds like it was recorded in an after-show dressing room complete with hand claps, kibitzing and a soulful woman stepping into the fray and echoing the vocal lines with a sensuous flavor. Hot "boot tenor" from saxoholic Steve Clark adds a tasty ingredient to this after-hours musical stew. Vonderharr's harmonica climbs the metaphoric stairs to heaven and hits some ungodly high notes that will make you tilt your head like a pooch hearing a high-pitched dog whistle.
"Mellow Down Easy" starts with some jungle drums before the harmonica spits out the rhythmic pattern for the tune. Vonderharr's vocals sound a little like Mose Allsion's take on this Willie Dixon nugget. It quickly becomes a tour de force for the harmonica as Vonderhaar pulls out all the stops and makes the Marine Band sound alternately like a raging elephant and a little church mouse.
Eddie Taylor was one of the many unsung Chicago blues greats who graced the bands of Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker and wrote the lasting down-tempo shuffle "Big Town Playboy" that gives piano man Hunter a chance to shine and pull out all his Pinetop Perkins licks. Vonderharr is the last into the action but grabs the groove and rides it like a rodeo champ all the way back to the starting gate.
If you're needing a pre-Bayfront Blues Festival fix, this is a group that knows the blues and can play it up right as they prove throughout "From The Shadows."
JOHN ZIEGLER has worked as program and music director at KUMD-FM for 31 years. He has produced seven compilation discs from some of his 3,500 in-studio sessions. He reviews music for the News Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .