The Smoke Wagon Blues Band, The Ballad of Albert Johnson
A follow up to their 2017 award winning Cigar Store, The Ballad of Albert Johnson sees Canada’s Smoke Wagon Blues Band in fine story-telling form, with a set of songs featuring soulful vocals and high octane musicianship.
This an experienced band, formed in Hamilton, Ontario in 1996, which has been performing all over North America and in festivals for many years. Its last three albums saw success in the Roots and Blues charts with Cigar Store winning three Awards at the Independent Blues Awards.
Now with The Ballad of Albert Johnson, the band’s eighth release, we get a generous 50 minutes plus of top-notch blues songs, in an album of thirteen originals, all delivered with considerable aplomb by a band at the top of its game.
In the opening title track we’re in ZZ Top territory, heads shakin’ and toes tappin’ along with Corey Lueck’s rasping vocals and some driving guitar. The pace lets up a bit with Memphis Soul, with its cool saxophone and funky guitar work. And then relaxes entirely into the jazzy, piano-driven, oh-so-cool Ain’t Gonna Be Your Fool.
We’re off again with the boogie woogie of The Fat Man, Brandon Bruce’s piano, Gordon Aeiichele’s saxophone and Lueck’s harmonica all contributing to the fun. After the piano blues of Lay Say Lay, Mescaline takes us into a minor key and classic late-night blues territory. So far, so good, with songs nicely varied, well-arranged and hugely enjoyable.
The rest of the album keeps up the quality admirably – I loved Poor Man Blues, with its deliberately cliched “woke up this morning, had them poor man blues,” and then lines like “stop that bellyaching, you’d better tighten up that belt.” The slow blues of Metapedia River Blues is beautifully orchestrated and Lueck’s soulful vocals suit the mood perfectly. A Song for Cheryl gives us a glimpse of what the band can do with a little Americana rather than straight blues – it’s an excellent song and the touch of harmonica is a highlight.
There’s country too with On The Road Again – it’s more of a send-up though. The album finishes with the live Steaming Comrades Harp Boogie, which gives you a little taste of what this band must be like in a live performance. A must see, if they’re anywhere in your neighbourhood, I’d say.
The Ballad of Albert Johnson sees The Smoke Wagon Blues Band in assured form doing what they do best – playing their hearts out and thoroughly entertaining. Highly recommended.
The Smoke Wagon Blues Band is:
Corey Lueck/ Vocals, Harp
Mike Stubbs/ Guitar
Brandon Bruce/ Piano, Organ
Gordon Aeichele/ Sax
Jason Colavecchia/ Bass