Sugar Ray & The Bluetones are back and better than ever with Hands Across The Table, their followup to the great seller Sugar Ray & the Bluetones featuring Monster Mike Welch. The Bluetones deliver their signature brand of hard driving blues, complete with blistering guitar by new Bluetone Paul Size, plus killer harmonica and beautiful performances delivered by one of today’s premier blues vocalists, Sugar Ray Norcia. The disc also features guest performances by the Providence Horns.
In 1978 Sugar Ray and the Bluetones were formed when Sugar Ray, Ronnie Earl, Neil Gouvin, Little Anthony Geraci and Mudcat Ward began playing at the Met Café in Providence, Rhode Island and…Wait a minute! Hold the wedding! That’s not the kind of liner notes we’re looking for to describe this latest CD from the band. Look, if you want the biographical stuff, the history of the band, quotations from reviewers—those kinds of things—you can find them easily somewhere else. Instead, let’s take a brief tour of this latest release from the band, its third on David Earl’s Severn Records.
We’re all familiar with the concepts of sin and redemption, the dichotomy between darkness and light. That’s the underlying subject matter that comprises most of the deeper examples of traditional American music and this collection from the Bluetones fits solidly in that vein. For example, consider the situations that come into play in human relationships between couples. Sugar Ray must have been thinking about one in particular recently. His title song “Hands Across the Table” tells of a hapless guy who has heard from some unnamed third party (isn’t that usually the way it goes?) that his woman is doing him wrong. Sitting across the table, perhaps in a restaurant, he confronts her directly about it. The accuser is a liar, she reassures him, as she reaches with her hands to grasp his. Sugar’s harp lines reinforce the story over Paul Size’s mantra-like lick on his Stratocaster guitar. Whether the fellow in “I Done Got Wise” ends up as fortuitous is an open question. His woman undoubtedly is messing around—but in this situation, he is out the door, smarter but perhaps smarting at the same time, all the while wondering aloud, how could you do it?
We are, in “Dark Roads Calling,” literally at that moment of choice where one’s free will enters life’s fray. Will it be the path of the straight and narrow or that enticing pull towards the dark road? Here is indeed a remarkable vocal performance. Paul reaches deep into the blues fountain as well. As a new addition to the Bluetones, Paul Size, a native of the state of Texas, makes the most of this opportunity to introduce himself. His spirit and blues sensibility make for a most compelling match. “Livin’ a Lie” emerges from what one might suspect are the rough seas in another relationship. This time Sugar’s protagonist is well aware of the philandering (“I know she’s out cheating, don’t you think I’m blind”) but has so much love for his counterpart that he willingly and happily wants to remain a couple despite her transgressions. Take a special note of Gouvin’s patent-pending two-handed double shuffle; the instrumental “Cloud Cover” begins with a harp lick Sugar Ray had been fooling around with for over a year. Spur-of-the-moment, the number developed quickly and instantaneously in the studio, the entire band contributing their respective parts.
“Say You Love Me (Before I Hang Up)” conjures up an all too familiar scene in our recent history—leaving home and loved ones behind to head out for military action. There’s an important message here, but that doesn’t keep the band from collectively getting down on this one (and I must confess, that old string bass with those gut strings probably has a little something to do with it.)
When an old song like “That’s My Desire” gets a reworking, it can be a momentous occasion. Sugar Ray had an old tape recording of Frankie Laine’s rendition, but the version presented here is like no other. Like the best vocalists, Sugar Ray transforms the melody with improvisational ingenuity and beauty; never will he sing it the same way twice. Be prepared for the ending!
“(I’m Gonna Break Into) Folsom Prison” concerns itself with the scourge of outsourcing. The foundational lick grabbed a hold of me and wouldn’t let go. By the way, this cut could give rise to a brand new proverb: Inventive harp playing and inventive drumming go hand and hand. “I Wanna Marry You Girl” is Paul’s compositional contribution to the session. The story line, like the melody, is highly positive yet deceptively simple.
In years past, the Bluetones worked many nights with the late Jimmy Rogers. Sugar evokes the subtleties of the Rogers style in his own “I Won’t Leave Home No More,” inspired by his recent solo tour of Italy, the land of his lineage. Homesickness is a powerful emotion, but it can germinate creative musical ideas when the circumstances are right. You might say the circumstances were right. Seems we are always looking for that sign on the highway indicating the way home. Anthony Geraci’s piano work, by the way, is exceptional here. And Paul: what he plays, both in solo and throughout, for my money—hey, see if it moves you like it does us.
Anthony gets to show another side of his limitless talents at the piano in the old near-classic, “River Stay ‘Way From My Door.” Sugar Ray, you might not know, lives deep in the Rhode Island woods, where he has a cabin and a stream, a flock of chickens, a wily fox relentlessly after those chickens, tons of birds, some snakes, a loyal dog (Clyde), and a huge old cat (Big Walter). He heard Charlie Rich singing “River” one day and, well—he certainly could relate to it. Need I say more? Carl’s trombone solo and Doug’s horn arrangements are exemplary.
We reach the redemption part in great measure on Sugar’s beautiful ballad, “The Last Blues Song.” I had to ask Sugar Ray about the song and his inspiration. He had widely-shared hopes that someday the world could turn into a place without sin, sickness, deception or despair, recognizing full well that there’d be no blues with the eradication of such evils. Said Sugar Ray, “I don’t want to put myself out of a job but….” Listen to “The Last Blues Song.” Hear what he’s talking about. Hear what the Bluetones are talking about. In that spirit, we close with “End Time.” As you listen to Sugar’s plaintive yet glory-filled acoustic harmonica along with Anthony’s exquisite piano, Paul’s vibrato-filled arpeggios, Gouvin’s antique Slingerlands and that old bass of mine, you just might feel the presence of a dearly loved but now lost family member. We did. — Mudcat Ward
Thank You…Patty, Jesse, Louise Norcia, The Niedbalas Family, Mike and Judy Norcia and Family, The “Stinkies”, Neighbor and Neighborette, Brian and Nancy, Mike Riley and Family, Gary “Sonny Jr.” Onofrio and Sonny Jr. Ventures, David Barrett and the Harmonica Masterclass Company, Day and Night Productions, Jack Gauthier, David Earl and Severn Records, Bonnie, Clay, Ann and Larry, Greg Sarni, Jeff Aptt, 99.3 Swing FM in Newport, RI., T, Honey, Jason, Todd, Mikayla, Andrea Miller, all our family, fans and friends, all past members of the greater Bluetone family and our Lord in Heaven.
Sugar Ray Norcia: Vocals and Harmonica
Michael “Mudcat” Ward: Acoustic and Electric Bass
Neal Gouvin: Drums
Paul Size: Guitar
Anthony Geraci: Piano
Special Guests: The Providence Horns
Carl Querfurth – Trombone
Doug “Mr. Low” James – Baritone and Tenor Sax
Produced by Sugar Ray and the Bluetones and David Earl
Recorded and Mixed by Jack Gauthier at Lakewest Studios, Coventry, RI
Mastered by Charlie Pilzer at Airshow Mastering, Springfield, VA
Cover and Under CD Tray from Italy, photography by Giuseppe Bonelli
All Other Photos (except Paul) from Lucerne Blues Festival by Heinz Steimann, Paul Sizes’s Photo by Chris Henry
Design by Al Brandtner at Brandtner Design, Chicago, IL
All Songs by R. Norcia, Norcia Publishing/DE Music-BMI
Except: track 7 by Helmy Kressa/Carol Loveday, EMI Mills Music Inc.
ASCAP; track 8 by M. Ward, Trajet Music-BMI; track 9 by P.Size / J. Hoy, Ruby Glue Music-BMI; track 11 by Mort Dixon/Harry Woods, B. Feldman &
Co. ASCAP; and track 13 by M. Ward, Trajet Music-BMI