Yes, it is that George Benson, he of the smooth 80’s soul, laced with harmony jazz guitar and scat singing. Being reviewed by The Midlands Rocks? Surely some mistake? Well, not really in this case. In something of a departure from his normal fare, Benson is recording a tribute to two of his heroes – Crescent City legends Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. Also, it’s with a small, hand picked band of seasoned, erm…cats, for blues label Provogue, and produced by Kevin (Joe Bonamassa, Iron Maiden) Shirley. Plus, have you ever heard his live classic ‘Weekend In LA’…the man can play!
His first album since 2013’s lush tribute to Nat King Cole, this is a much more stripped back affair. Kicking off with ‘Nadine’, Benson and Shirley set out their stall – faithful covers – cool, subtle, effortlessly professional and full of warmth. Yes, there’s the trademark scat/guitar thang, and no, it won’t be to everyone’s taste (it’s hard to imagine Zakk Wylde doing this),but it’s not obtrusive and doesn’t appear much throughout the album. The horns have a touch of the Blues Brothers about them and the N’Orlans piano is flawless. It’s fine, whiskey and armchair stuff.
Throughout, Berry is evoked with a playful reverence. The iconic rock ‘n roll rhythms and masterful wordplay are all present and correct. These interpretations are possibly slightly smoother than Chucks originals but, hey, that’s fine, that’s partly what this album is all about. ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ is all engine rhythm with wonderful guitar/piano sparring. ‘Memphis Tennessee’ is a 3 minute tear up with Benson recreating the solo note for note before adding a few licks of his own. ‘Blue Monday’ is a here-comes-the-weekend classic, rarely, if ever, bettered. Benson can peel these solos off in his sleep…and may have done just that. The highlight of the Berry songs is a moody ‘Havana Moon’ – all boats, harbours, heat and rum, laced with seductive strings.
The Fats Domino tracks are, if anything, even better. More of a natural match for Benson, he revels in their mischievous melodiousness. That instantly recognisable New Orleans backline is there in abundance, the drums just slightly behind the beat. The horn section really come into their own, soloing with tasteful joy, never upstaging the boss or the source material. ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ is three minutes of glory, doing just enough to let you know that you’re not listening to the original while the piano, horns and guitar play hide ‘n seek.
‘I Hear You Knockin’ is much more Fats than Dave Edmunds, bringing it back to Louisiana, while the title track is a wistful, respectful high point – it glides, walks on water, and the songwriting beauty fair brings a tear to the eye.
And that is what this album is all about. It’s a genuine tribute to two of the best. Ever. Benson’s not about to try to upstage anyone and that’s his masterstroke…why try to improve on perfection? What he does do is play these songs beautifully – calmly, and with supreme craftsmanship. And what it does, what it really does, is take you back to the motherlode. While drifting away with this album you long to go back and listen to the originals. Berry and Domino were once in a lifetime talents and man, they knew their way around a tune! You won’t hear a better chill out album this year.
Review by Gary Cordwell
Released by Provogue Records on 26 April 2019
- Nadine (Is It You)
- Ain’t That A Shame
- Rockin’ Chair
- You Can’t Catch Me
- Havana Moon
- I Hear You Knockin’
- Memphis Tennessee
- Walkin’ To New Orleans
- Blue Monday
- How You’ve Changed