May 27, 2024

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CD review: Billy Branch and The Sons of Blues – Roots and Branches – The Songs of Little Walter 2019: Full album video, CD cover

Roots and Branches — The Songs of Little Walter cementsBilly Branch’s place among the kings as he and his Sons of Blues dedicate this disc to the best who ever did it.

Billy leads the way on harmonica and vocals, with a backing band of longtime Chi-town veteran Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi on piano, Giles Corey on guitar, Marvin Little on bass, and Andrew “Blaze” Thomas on drums. They deliver 14 tracks of the most popular selections from Walter’s repertoire, but the band cooked up their own batch of blues, soul, R&B, funk, and gospel grooves to infuse some freshness into the fabric of these classics—plus a bonus track of Walter’s daughter Marion Diaz talking about memories of her dad. 

On Mellow Down Easy, Branch shows his mastery of range, while the band gets a funk-gospel groove going. Roller Coaster reminds us how well Walter could build a seemingly endless solo over a one-chord vamp. Blue and Lonesome typifies the West Side style, with great blues guitar work à la Otis Rush / Magic Sam from Corey, and some of Branch’s best minor blues harp licks playing G diatonic on a C chromatic harp. It’s also one of his best vocal performances on the entire album. 

Hate to See You Go is a one-chord, Lightnin’ Hopkins–esque boogie which shows the ingenuity of Branch’s chugging, incessant groove and growl. My Babe gets a wonderful New Orleans–flavored tinge that would make Professor Longhair smile. After the first two verses, it suddenly shifts back home to the hard Chicago shuffle, even as the chord progression blends in a few jazz changes for good measure (Giles Corey squeezes off a tasty pair of guitar solo choruses). A few tracks later in the album, we find that It’s Too Late Brother actually has the original My Babe groove on it.

Juke is not the jump blues instrumental we expected—its greasier and funkier, with a slightly different set of chords, even as Branch liberally snatches verbatim quotes from the well-known solo. Equally surprising is the rendition of Last Night, arranged more on the sassy end of the spectrum. It’s a bold move that really works for Branch and Sons, especially with the plentiful piano rolls that Ariyo employs underneath the vocals. 

Just Your Fool / Key to the Highway is a funk fest that Billy’s vocals are custom-tailored for. They modulate out of Just Your Fool and seamlessly segue into a new key with chord changes of Key to the Highway.

Boom Boom Out Go the Lights is played pretty close to the original version—just a good, hard-driving shuffle that swings like mad, with a howlin’ harp attack that really burns. On the other end of the spectrum, One More Chance With You has a smooth-walking bass line and cascading jazzy piano riffs from Ariyo, with guest artist with Shoji Naito sitting in on guitar.

The last two tunes find the band playing it straightYou’re So Fine has the brisk, patented double shuffle, while Blues With a Feeling is as good an example of the classic Chicago sound as any on the album—with beautiful Otis Spann–flavored piano solo, Jimmy Rogers–style rhythm guitar, and the Walter harp squall from Branch. It’s as strong an ending as anyone could have asked for.

Billy and his band are tighter than a snare drum head. Harp blowers everywhere will rejoice. – Wayne Goins

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