During Covid confinement, singer and harmonica player Ronnie Owens spent time listening to some of his band Li’l Ronnie & The Grand Dukes’ old live shows recordings.
One of them belonged to a 2005 concert. It was very well recorded and had an excellent sound too. At that time the band counted with the excellent sound technician and producer Jerry Hall, one of the best professionals of the time, who had worked at Motown Records and, thanks to his professional work, these recordings got an impressive quality. There should have been released on Jerry Hall’s own label, Pacific Blues, but Jerry suddenly passed away, so the project was forgotten.
Now Ronnie has rescued it to the delight of blues lovers who look for the best music, because the album is really impressive. Eight fantastic songs have been selected from that concert, respecting the same order they were played live, plus three bonus tracks recorded on studio. The band included Ronnie Owens on vocals and harmonica, Robert Frahm on guitar, John Fralin on piano and organ, Bryan Smith on bass and George Sheppard on drums, all them great musicians and amazing blues masters, a language they perfectly know and totally control.
It is a real pleasure to savor and enjoy these eleven juicy attractive dishes, full of a very special fragrance and quality, where the best blues prevail and shine at really high level.
Interestingly, the last review I did of a CD that Ronnie was a part of was in April of 2014. The group recording the project was called “Li’l Ronnie And The BlueBeats” featuring Claudia Carawan, and it was titled Unfinished Business. Since it was originally supposed to be released in 1991, it was indeed unfinished business. Now, here it is very close to ten years later and I’m working on his latest release titled Got It ‘Live’ From ’05. It’s a recording of a Li’l Ronnie And The Grand Dukes show that was performed back in 2005. Alas, more unfinished business.
Back then, The Grand Dukes consisted of Ronnie Owens, of course, on vocals & harmonica; George Sheppard on drums; Bryan Smith on bass; Robert Frahm on guitar; and John Fralin on piano & organ. Got It ‘Live’ From ’05 is the eight-song set – four originals and four covers – that was recorded live at an undisclosed venue somewhere ‘on the road’. Additionally, the disc contains three bonus tracks from the bands’ yet to be named up-coming studio release. Now there’s something to look forward to, right? Joining Ronnie on that release will be John Fralin on piano; Gordon Harrower on guitar; Michael Gallagher on drums; and John Coppenger on bass.
The band opened the show with a dance floor filling original track titled “Mellow Chick” and from there, I’m sure there was no looking back. Right out of the gate they got into a groove that would have you betting they were from Southern California and not Central Virginia. I say that because the guys have what I like to call that ‘So Cool SoCal’ sound. Rod Piazza And The Mighty Flyers may have patented it, but Li’l Ronnie And The Grand Dukes have that slick, smooth and swinging swagger totally down pat. With everyone in full swing mode behind him, when Ronnie’s not blowin’ the hell out of the harp, he’s telling us about all of the characteristics the perfect woman for him must have. Good luck with that Ronnie.
Another of his originals finds Ronnie in damage control mode as he’s begging his woman not to leave. The song is titled “Bettin’ On My Baby” and the gambling related lines he’s using to get her back – like “I love you baby like a gambler loves the track”, could very well be the reason she wants to leave. Musically, it’s another rhythm fueled swinger led by the fabulous drumming from George and the deep bass lines from Bryan on the big bass; and killer guitar and harp work from Robert and Ronnie – both on solo runs or the very cool cord sparring they get into.
On another of the original tracks titled “Life Changes’, so does the music. This one has the guys laying down a shuffle with lots of piano highlights from John and a whole bunch of my all-time favorite harmonic sounds – those high-end Jimmy Reed notes – from Ronnie.
If you were ever gonna have the blues, “Early Monday Morning” (George Smith) is a very likely time. Showcasing his versatile style, both on the vocals and the harmonica, Ronnie puts the swag aside and belts out a masterful Chicago blues style performance on this slow blues number. Did someone say slow blues? Yes, Robert, the kind that needs some scorching note bending leads and smoking solo runs – go for it.
The last of Ronnie’s four originals is a track called “Love Trance”. It’s an awesome mix of some swampy voodoo style blues, and a little bit of funk and soul. Musically, The Grand Dukes could all very well be at disc’s best; the rhythm and percussion groove George, Bryan and John are in on the drums, bass and organ is mesmerizing; and Robert is doing the kind of things on the guitar that probably had everyone in the audience looking at their friends with one of those “are you hearing this stuff?” looks. Wow!
As live shows should, Ronnie and the guys are making sure they “Rock This House” (Jimmy Rogers) on the closing number. It is indeed a smoker that in addition to featuring everyone in full tilt jam mode, it also highlights them individually.
Because I’m hoping to tell you a whole lot more about them when the new release comes out, I’m going to do what Ronnie did by putting them on here – he teased us with them. That said, here’s a nibble: “V’s Boogie” is an original by Ronnie’s four band mates on the upcoming disc (see the credits above) and it features them on one heck of a N’awlins style instrumental romp; “Need Your Love So Bad” (Merit & Willie John) is over six minutes of slow, low down gut wrenching blues with emotional vocals from Gordon Harrower, relaxed rhythm, and stinging guitar and piano leads; and “Same Thing Can Happen To You” is a frolickin’, up tempo rendition of a Lazy Lester tune.
Li’l Ronnie is Ronnie Owens, the harp player and front man for The Grand Dukes. This is their 13th release and it’s a live album recorded in 2005 that they put together during the Pandemic from some stuff Jerry Hall had recorded for them at Loafers Beach Club in Raleigh, NC. Hall has since passed and the album is now released on Eller Soul instead of Hall’s old label and it’s a truly fine production of this set of tunes. On top of that, Owens and company preview three new tracks at the end as a bonus; these songs will be featured on an upcoming new album.
The Grand Dukes are, in addition to Owens, George Sheppard on drums, Bryan Smith on bass, Robert Frahm on guitar and John fralin on piano and organ. These guys are all quite talented and give super performances on each cut.
“Mellow Chick” starts the album off and it’s a swinging and jumping blues that gets the blood flowing. Great guitar and harp licks abound and the vocals are spot on. “Bettin’ On My Baby” follows, another swinging cut with stinging guitar and cool harp. Next is “Crossed Eyed Suzie Lee” with more the jumping and jiving good time. Straight up blues is featured next in “Life Changes,” a traditional AAB song that the band nails. Harp, guitar and piano are in the forefront and lay out some cool music.
Slow blues is up next with “Early Monday Morning,” some slick and dirty blues done up right. Harp then guitar give impassioned solos here. They are back to swinging with “Hey Little Girl” featuring a nice instrumental intro and some great guitar and harp work. They get a little Rhumba going for “Love Trance.” “Rock This House” follows and it’s a really super little jump blues with another cool intro. Guitar, harp and dums all get some solo time and Ronnie introduces all the band to the crowd.
The final three tracks are bonus tracks from their upcoming studio album.”V’s Boogie” is a swell instrumental with a cool groove and vibe and some fine piano work. Then “I Need Your Love So Bad” is up, some very solid and soulful slow blues played and sung with emotion. The final cut is “Same Thing Could Happen To You” which features lots of great harp and a swinging beat.
A cool mix of half originals and half covers (two Harmonica Smith tunes and one each from Zuzu Bolin and Jimmy Rogers) makes for some exceptional live music. The three bonus cuts are also great covers that left me wanting to hear their next CD. There’s some inspired playing here and fans of blues and jump blues will all find something here to savor.
It was the overall performance and sound quality that I was impressed with. Are shows always have a high level of improvisation. Of course having legendary producer/engineer, Jerry Hall, at the controls was most advantageous. The song are in the same order as recorded with no over-dups or redo’s. We’re currently working on a new studio recording with new material that we’ve stated to perform live. This will also be recorded mostly live in studio setup. The members of the band on live recording was my touring band. I always record with my touring band. That why it’s called ’a band’,- an interview with me said Li’l Ronnie.
Most highly recommended!