By David McGee
The Duke Robillard Band
There comes a point during the experience of listening to Ear Worms when superlatives can’t really explain what’s happening on the disc better than a simple, “Man, Duke and company really got it together this time.” This is not to suggest Duke and company haven’t really got it together many times before this, but something is special in the way of conceptual execution, energy, commitment and sheer soulfulness going on here with the ultimate effect of making the entire endeavor seem transcendent—everyone’s working on a higher plane, from the stalwart band members to the guest artists to Duke himself, who simply fashions and blazes away on some of his finest guitar solos in recent memory (and that’s saying something in and of itself).
Duke has always made exploring the music of his formative years essential to his professional persona, and he’s not changing up now. Although neither designed nor promoted as a tribute album, Ear Worms’ cover tunes represent an especially deep and moving cavalcade of the wide scope of roots music Duke absorbed as his musical identity was taking shape. Even the lone Robillard original here, the album opening “Don’t Bother Trying to Steal Her Love,” a lighthearted, rocking ode to unswerving commitment with Dave Howard’s gritty lead vocal underpinned by muscular piano soloing courtesy ever-steady Robillard band stalwart Bruce Bears, at times fleetingly quotes Chuck Berry’s “C’est La Vie.” Chuck is a more pronounced presence later on the album, when the band gets to cooking behind Duke’s roaring six-string on Chuck’s “Dear Dad,” which apart from the fiery Robillard guitar work echoing his master’s voice, is driven by more Bears keyboard fireworks and Klem Klimek’s swaggering, humorous vocal turn. Duke himself takes a personable, bluesy lead vocal on an obscure Goffin-King number, “On This Side of Goodbye,” infusing this aching 1966 Righteous Brothers single with a taste of Stax-style horns and gospel-rooted backup singers. As if it his stirring keyboard work wasn’t enough, Bears steps up for a hearty vocal rendering on a funky arrangement of Allen Toussaint’s socially conscious workout, “Yes We Can,” originally cut by Lee Dorsey in 1970 but turned into a hit in the Pointer Sisters’ irresistible 1972 version, with a message as necessary—perhaps even more so–now as it was then, to wit: Try to find the peace within/Without stepping on one another/Do respect the women of the world/Just remember we all had mothers…Take care of all the children/the children of the world/’cause they’re our strongest hope for the future/the little bitty boys and girls. The New Orleans connection continues immediately thereafter when drummer Mark Texeira, another Robillard Band veteran, delivers an emotional reading of “Yellow Moon,” co-credited to Aaron Neville and his late wife, Joel Roux Neville, but written by Aaron at a moment he was missing his partner something fierce. Here the tune is treated with a bit of Allman Brothers flavor conjured by Texeira’s blues-centered phrasing, Bears’s rich, evocative organ and Duke’s long, simmering guitar lines.
Julie Grant’s 1963 British hit version of Goffin-King’s ‘Up On the Roof’
‘Every Day I Have to Cry Some,” with lead vocals shared by Julie Grant and Sunny Crownover on the 1962 classic penned by Arthur Alexander and featured on the Duke Robillard Band’s Ear Worms
The treats don’t end there. In the early to mid-‘60s England boasted several top-notch female pop singers, including one Julie Grant, who didn’t quite make the jump to these shores as did her contemporaries Petula Clark and Cilla Black (and at least briefly, Sandi Shaw). One of Grant’s big hits was Goffin-King’s “Up on the Roof,” and although she’s not on the Goffin-King tune featured on Ear Worms, she does emerge from history’s shadow (Duke met her a few years ago when she was working as a booking agent for a Connecticut-based casino) to team with the gifted Sunny Crownover for a feisty take on Arthur Alexander’s 1962 classic “Every Day I Have to Cry Some.” Whatever Ms. Grant has been doing in recent years hasn’t diminished vocal presence, as she brings a life-affirming buoyancy to her performance in an arrangement not so far removed from the Spector-tinged style she traded on in her home country back in the day. Crownover has her own moment in the sun delivering a sexy reading of Brenda Lee’s 1959 hit, the Ronnie Self-penned “Sweet Nothin’s,” And Arthur Alexander shows up again by way of Duke’s tender instrumental version of “Soldier of Love,” a 1962 B side, written by Buzz Cason and Terry Moran, that became better in a memorable performance by the Beatles from a 1963 BBC session.
‘You Belong to Me,’ the 1952 pop evergreen made legendary by Jo Stafford, as performed by the Duke Robillard Band, with lead guitar by Duke, organ by Bruce Bears, featured on the Duke Robillard Band’s Ear Worms
‘Rawhide,’ Link Wray’s 1959 followup to ‘Rumble,’ reprised on Ear Worms featuring Duke Robillard on lead guitar
“Soldier of Love” is one of four outstanding instrumentals Duke adds to the Ear Worms mix. The oft-covered chestnut “Careless Love,” which dates at least to the turn of the 20th Century, when it was reportedly a regular feature in the repertoire of New Orleans legend Buddy Bolden and his band, is blessed with a gently swinging, country-tinged performance, whereas “Rawhide,” a rousing gem from Link Wray (his second hit single, released in 1959, almost a year after his monumental “Rumble” and originally titled “Raw-Hide”), one of Duke’s preeminent influences, is all fire and fury ahead of a dreamy, romantic, album closing treatment of “You Belong to Me,” the 1952 classic pop standard entered into legend when Jo Stafford made it one of her signature songs. This savvy bit of sequencing is seemingly designed to bring the listener down easy, with Bears’s organ and Duke’s guitar effecting the most romantic of settings in signing off.
‘Don’t Bother Trying to Steal Her Love,’ a Duke Robillard original featuring Dave Howard on lead vocal, Duke on guitar, Bruce Bears on keys, from Ear Worms
“I am a believer that all music that you hear affects you in some way,” Duke says in a press materials released with the album. In the breadth and depth of the songs he picked for Ear Worms, Robillard has arguably given us the most complete picture yet of the songs and sounds lighting the path he has walked since emerging in 1967 as a founding member of Roomful of Blues. And if your faithful friend and narrator is completely wrong on this point, he assures the reader a splendid time is guaranteed for all, regardless.