CD Review of Raisin’ a Ruckus by Roomful of Blues
Recommended if you like
Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner, Bull Moose Jackson
Label
Alligator
Roomful of Blues:
Raisin’ a Ruckus

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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T
hey celebrate their 41st anniversary as a group this year, but Roomful of Blues have never been current, have never been particularly hip, and have never sold a ton of records. They have, however, always been thoroughly excellent at what they do, which is carry a torch for jump blues. It’s a genre that was long out of vogue in 1967, and though Roomful’s commercial fortunes have been buoyed by the periodic swing fads that seem to flare up roughly once per decade (a little Stray Cats here, a little Big Bad Voodoo Daddy there), it has remained essentially the stuff of revivalists since it helped give birth to rock & roll in the mid ‘50s.

While Roomful CDs collect dust on shelves, however, the band gathers absolutely no moss on the road; its members have been basically living on a tour bus for the last few decades, which is a big part of why members have come and gone with such dizzying speed. Saxophonist Rich Lataille is the only remaining original member, and this incarnation’s grizzled veterans, such as guitarist Chris Vachon, have only been around since the early ‘90s. (Trumpeter Bob Enos, who joined the band in 1981, died in his sleep the day before Raisin’ a Ruckus was released.)

The point of discussing all this turnover – especially at the lead singer position, which has been a revolving door since Sugar Ray Norcia left in 1997 – isn’t to suggest that Roomful of Blues is somehow less than musically legitimate, the jump blues equivalent of Menudo. Quite the contrary. Band members come and go, but the Roomful vibe carries on, undisturbed and relatively unchanged; it’s why the group has found success backing artists as diverse as Big Joe Turner, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and Earl King, among many others – and why the Roomful horn section has popped up on recordings by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mitch Woods, and, uh, Pat Benatar.

The formula doesn’t change, in other words, and here it is: Take some rave-ups, some blues ballads, an instrumental or two. Pour horns (and depending on who’s in the band, maybe some harmonica) all over everything, and repeat. Time-tested ingredients, all of ‘em, and Raisin’ a Ruckus makes good use of each.

Of course, it should come as no surprise that even if it doesn’t besmirch the Roomful legacy, it doesn’t really add much to it either. The band reached its late-period apex during Sugar Ray Norcia’s tenure in the ‘90s – culminating with 1997’s excellent Under One Roof – and the recordings released by subsequent lineups have lacked the crackling energy of that era. Ruckus is no different. New vocalist Dave Howard (taking over for Mark DuFresne, who stepped in for Mac Odom, who…you get the idea) acquits himself admirably, lending the material a pleasantly bluesy grit – not to mention a welcome dash of harp – and tracks like the cover of Link Davis’ “Big Mamou” and the Vachon original “Life Has Been Good” are worthwhile additions to the band’s canon, little of what’s here sets the 2008 version of Roomful of Blues apart from its forebears.

Which is probably sort of the point, really; at this point, new Roomful albums are little more than new pieces of product to put on the merch table after shows. The band’s strength remains the stage. If you love jump blues, don’t let that stop you from buying Raisin’ a Ruckus – you have precious few options for contemporary recordings in the genre as it is – but if forced to choose between picking up the record and catching a show, you should definitely opt for the latter.

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