Album Review: Roomful of Blues – “45 LIVE”


Local Rhode Island band live: 45 years later

Sitting down to review a new Roomful of Blues release is a little like trying to critique the air. Overstatement?  Perhaps, but consider this: for over 45 years, no one entity has come close to not merely representing, but rather defining the very fabric of what the New England music scene is, better than that ubiquitous mob of swingers called Roomful of Blues. And just as The Beatles hailed from Liverpool only to go glacial,  Roomful sprang from little Rhody and in short order created a fanbase from East Coast U.S.A. to West, Europe to Asia, and everywhere people enjoy a heavy jump beat with luscious brass punctuating the whole swingin’ stew.

The Grammy award winning band started in 1967, under the guidance of guitar-giant Duke Robillard and pianist Al Copley. Through the ensuing decades, Roomful of Blues served almost as a musical refinery plant where more often than not, musicians came in great and left legends. Names like Ronnie Earl, Lou Ann Barton, Porky Cohen, Ron Levy, Dave Howard, Curtis Salgato, and of course, the aforementioned Robillard all emerged from Roomful’s lineup elevated to cult status among those lovers of the genre.

However, it’s with their terribly-potent current lineup that Roomful releases 45 LIVE on Alligator Records. Spanning their entire five-decade career, the album contains 65 minutes of what made this swing-blues juggernaut a household name. Led by guitarist Chris Vachon, the eight-piece Roomful of Blues, featuring original member Rich Lataille and new singer Phil Pemberton, made great inroads toward capturing that ever-allusive “live club vibe” on this, their 23rd disc.

Recorded over a three-day engagement at Matunuck’s Ocean Mist (Rhode Island’s answer to The Stone Pony),  45 LIVE wastes little time getting into that unmistakable Roomful of Blues joint with the heavy swinging “Just Keep On Rockin.” In a voice reminiscent of Kim Wilson (though never derivative), Phil Pemberton bolts out vocals in confident bursts of soul “My baby loves to travel with the band. She travels with us all across the land –  Every roadhouse and every state there’s a line out the gate…

Those passionate about the genre know it’s a  melange of various American roots influences, ranging from Texas swing to Chicago blues, right down to New Orleans’ Cajun sounds. And it’s with the latter that Roomful adds their own touch to the Hank Williams standard “Jambalaya (On The Bayou).” And in demonstrating just how diverse those influences are, the band effortlessly transitions into Magic Sam’s slow, driving blues number, “Easy Baby.” Throughout, Chris Vachon steps out from all that brassy goodness, guitar in hand, and treats those within earshot to some painfully eloquent licks, dripping with much tone and taste.

But as with any great band, it’s always that one certain original crowd-pleaser that becomes synonymous with the band itself.  And for Roomful of Blues “Dressed Up To Get Messed Up” is that number. Omission of this perennial favorite from any Roomful retrospective, either live or studio, would be tantamount to criminal.

The music business has always been a risky, unpredictable proposition. And Roomful of Blues has not only thrived through decades of coming-and-going trends and styles, they’ve actually transcended from a band into an institution.  Undoubtedly, in the ensuing years, membership in Roomful’s lineup will change, but their position as the very best jump-blues, swing rock & roots act will easily remain undisputed for many decades to come. 45 LIVE outlines precisely why that is.