Review by Fred Rudofsky
There are few things better in life than hearing a band tear it up on a Friday night, in Albany no less. As the the Chris O’Leary Band proved in three dynamic sets at The Bayou, the blues is alive and well, especially here in our own backyard.
O’Leary, an ex-Marine who served an equal stint of six years with Levon Helm’s Barn Burners, fronts a homegrown band that fires on all cylinders. Opening with a swing blues, “I Ain’t Gonna Do It”, O’Leary declaimed with authority in his vocals and harp, locking into a playful banter with the Bonneville Horns, Chris DeFrancesco (baritone sax) and Andy Stahl (tenor sax) that proved to be a hallmark throughout the evening.
The first set was replete with originals from their debut album, “Mr. Used to Be” (VizzTone Records), as well as songs from an upcoming album set for later this year. “I Need You (Like I Need a Hole in My Head)” delivered wit and verve, rooted in some fine drumming by Sean McCarthy and a duet vocal by O’Leary and Willa McCarthy. The Gulf Coast sounds of Excello Records (“Louisiana Woman”) and Mardi Gras (“Tchoupitoulas”) offered fine tempos for even wallflowers to leave the bar and hit the dance floor. “Letters from Home” addressed the blues faced by the soldier overseas, with O’Leary’s slow aching harp paired with Chris Viterello’s agitated guitar bringing to mind vintage Junior Wells and Buddy Guy.
And though O’Leary can count many bluesmen for inspiration, his roaring takes of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moaning at Midnight” and “Killin’ Floor” got everybody’s notice that the cotton farmer formerly known as Chester Arthur Burnett just may be his favorite.
The second set was equally inspired, demonstrating why the Chris O’Leary Band were up for the 2011 Blues Music Award’s Best New Artist Debut honor. “377-9189,” set for the next album, offered a wry look at phone sex in a desperate economy; cleverly, it was followed by “Heartbreak Waiting to Happen.” J.B. Lenoir’s “Mojo Boogie” and Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” were hellaciously fine Chicago blues, revved up by the deft bass of Frank Ingrao.
Three songs from O’Leary’s debut really got the crowd going. “Dress Blues”, an ode to serving America, elicited whoops of “Semper Fi!” from several servicemen in the audience. “Mr. Used to Be” featured a fine Eddie Taylor-styled guitar intro, engaging vocals by O’Leary and harmonies by McCarthy, and what can only be described as joyous harmonica riffs resonating throughout the venue. “Blues is A Woman” drew strongly upon the slow-burn guitar stylings of T-Bone Walker and Ronnie Earl, allowing Viterello to really stretch out, to the delight of his bandmates and the growing crowd.
Most bands have little left in the tank after two strong sets, but the Chris O’Leary Band hit the third set after midnight like a Cadilliac peeling out of a gas station on a full tank. “I’ve Got Questions,” a new song, tapped into the rhumba sounds of Professor Longhair, mixing some cool slide with hard driving harp. The pairing of Bo Diddley (“Who Do You Love?”) with the recently deceased Johnny Otis (“Willie and the Hand Jive”), morphing into Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” was a recipe for the dancers to cut a rug. Big Joe Turner’s “Hide and Seek” was a chest-thumper: O’Leary smiled like a Cheshire cat as he delivered the lyrics to the call and response of DeFrancesco’s crazed baritone solos.
With a nod to Levon Helm, his mentor and songwriting collaborator, O’Leary charged into the irresistible “Water’s Risin'” and transformed the Pearl Street venue into a midnight ramble. Ralph Spillinger, the Bayou’s owner and sound man for the evening, even strapped on a guitar and a slide to join the band for Elmore James’ call to booty, “Shake Your Moneymaker.” As if that were not enough, with telepathic glee O’Leary led his band through a wild trio of songs to close the night, showing that Chicago blues (“Mellow Down Easy”) and Sun Records touchstones (“That’s All Right, Mama” and “Folsom Prison Blues”) can co-exist as long as the beat is hopping.
NOTE: The Chris O’Leary Band is slated for a return trip to town at 10pm on Friday, March 9, when they grace the stage at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Troy. Admission is free.
THE CHRIS O’LEARY BAND’S SET LIST
I Ain’t Gonna Do It
I Need You (Like a Hole in My Head)
Hey Little Sister
Grass is Always Green
Letters from Home
There’s Going to be Some Rockin’ Tonight (AC/DC)
Moanin’ at Midnight (Howlin’ Wolf)
Walk the Walk
Killin’ Floor (Howlin’ Wolf)
Everybody Needs Somebody to Love (Solomon Burke)
Give It to Me Baby
Heartbreak Waitin’ to Happen
Mojo Boogie (J.B. Lenoir)
I Wish You Would (Billy Boy Arnold)
Mr. Used to Be
Blues is a Woman
My Baby’s Down in New Orleans
Mystery Train (Junior Parker)
I’ve Got Questions
Who Do You Love? (Bo Diddley)
Willie and the Hand Jive (Johnny Otis)
Hide and Seek (Big Joe Turner)
King of the Jungle
Shake Your Moneymaker (Elmore James)
Mellow Down Easy (Little Walter)
That’s All Right, Mama (Arthur Crudup)
Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash)