Hard, Stomping and Merciless

(from left) Robert Baker, Honey Robin, RJ Knapp, Rick J. Bowen: lighting the fuse



RJ Knapp & Honey Robin

Critical Sun Recordings

You might gather from the title of RJ Knapp & Honey Robin’s new album that subtlety is of secondary concern here. Chicago-born but a mainstay of the Seattle scene since 1972, guitarist-lead vocalist Knapp has assembled a quartet that plays blues—or “bluz” as it’s spelled in the titles of four of the original tunes here—hard, stomping and merciless, kind of a cross between the Windy City’s bruising urban blues and ZZ Top’s southwestern sizzle. In addition to playing fierce lead guitar, RJ also handles lead vocals on most of the tracks; suffice it to say he’s not trying to impress you with the versatility or beauty of his singing voice. His is a deep, dark growl of a voice, not pretty but an instrument demanding attention be paid (you’ll hear echoes of the great southern sage Darryl Rhoades, of Hahavishnu Orchestra fame, in RJ’s swagger, and some of young Hank Jr.’s bravado).

But RJ’s sure enough got the blues, or bluz, in a bad way. He comes thundering out of the gate with “I Call It the Bluz,” a simple explanation his scorched earth policy when it comes to his preferred musical style, complete with a wailing, upper neck Strat solo of the type he promises in the song. In the stomping “If the Bluz Was Money,” he imagines the luxuries that would be his if he could translate his woes (some of which stem from unemployment) into cold, hard cash (“if them blues was bullion/I’d be livin’ in Fort Knox/I’d be layin’ on them gold bars/not just this pile of rocks”), with a southern-style responsive chorus seconding his testifying. In one of the album’s more somber moments, the easygoing shuffle titled “Bus Stop Bluz,” RJ bemoans his proclivity for always “standing where I shouldn’t have been/in the wrong place at the right time” and missing out on something good, as Rick J. “Dr. Demo” Bowen supports his vocal and spare guitar with laid-back brush drums. Of course, what’s the bluz without some mean women to take to task? So it is that “Don’t Walk on Me” is RJ’s time to lash out furiously at a deceitful, lying distaff partner, as his guitar slashes and moans and the drums thunder.

RJ Knapp & Honey Robin, ‘Ready for Times,’ a Honey Robin original from Don’t Blame the Dynamite…If You Can’t Light the Fuse

A taste of RJ Knapp at the 2010 King of the Blues Seattle District Finals, held at the Seattle Guitar Center

The band’s other voice belongs to “Honey Robin” Mahaffey (“The Canary”), who brings a strong, assertive presence to her spotlight moments. Her moody “Ready for Times” is the dark, languorous confession of a woman who has had quite enough, thank you, of bad luck in her life and looks towards a brighter future, however bone-deep hear weariness sounds. Her other big moment is on “Hole in My Heart,” a thick, roiling blues with a spacey feel, not unlike some early Big Brother blues ballads, with Honey Robin assaying the emotional devastation of a failed romance (“it hurts so bad every day and night/everyone tells me it’ll be alright/but they don’t live with all this heartache and pain/knowing you’ll never hold me again”). Like RJ, Honey Robin’s technical gifts are not overwhelming, but her presence as a vocalist brings an urgency to her performances that more paint-by-numbers singers cannot approach.

Basic, solid blues from a basic, solid band. Guaranteed to please. Hey, don’t blame the dynamite…

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