Take equal parts rockabilly, classic country, honky tonk, and Bakersfield, mix them all together, and toss in a great guitar player, a rock-solid rhythm section, and some tasty guest appearances on keyboards and pedal steel. Then, channel the ghost of Roy Orbison and the spirit of (the still-living and still-great) Sleepy LaBeef into the vocals and what do you get? When Pat Roberts and the Heymakers did all this, they came up with the brilliant Lonesome & Blue, newly released on the Electric Lotus Label.
Lonesome and Blue, the band’s first release, serves as a modern tribute to classic country and rockabilly and is a thoroughly enjoyable record for anyone who loves these genres. The band—Pat Roberts on guitar and vocals, Paul Thomas on upright bass, and Ed Michaels on drums—mixes six great classic tunes in with seven Roberts originals to put together a really fine record.
Roberts and the band serve as the perfect foil to label mates Voodoo Swing (whose revved-up rockabilly release Keep on Rollin’ I’ve previously reviewed on this site) with a smoother, more mellow approach. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few really great rockers on this record because there are several. Like the disc’s opener, “Baby” and a rockin’ cover of Otis Blackwell’s “Let’s Talk About Us.” But these are less of the raucous, in-your-face rockabilly of early acts like Billy Lee Riley or Sonny Burgess, and more like the countrified rockabilly of Johnny Cash and Glen Glenn.
In fact, the band does a fine tribute to the man in black with a cover of his “Train of Love,” complete with Luther Perkins-styled guitar parts that make this a very faithful cover indeed. Roberts has a clear, strong voice that does have an Orbisonesque quality to it and he does a great job of bringing emotion to these songs. His own “Lonesome and Blue” sounds like it could have come from Orbison himself and the band follows that with a song Orbison co-wrote, “Uptown,” so it’s clear Roberts isn’t trying to hide his Orbison influence, but rather has embraced it and proudly makes it a part of his own style.
Throughout the record, Roberts’ displays fantastic, yet tasteful guitar work. He switches back and forth between rockabilly riffs and flat-out country fretwork that sometimes borders on chicken pickin’.
As I said, there are some fine rockers on this disc, but Roberts doesn’t shy away from his love of country music either. His “How Does it Feel” goes all out for country with a duet vocal with Amanda Lee providing the female voice, a slow country waltz groove, and completely country instrumentation.
Just to keep us guessing, the band throws a bit of Zydeco into the mix with “Ma Chere Petite.” I really like the guitar riff that ties this song together. The arrangement is not overly done so as to give the song a gratuitous feel, but instead feels right at home with the rest of the record.
The CD’s closing song, “Perfect Fool” along with “All of my Friends are Gonna be Strangers” show that Roberts was also influenced by the Bakersfield sound made so famous by Buck Owens in the early 60s. Although he forgoes the harmony vocal approach that made so many of Owens’ recordings so distinctive, there’s no mistaking the Bakersfield influence in these songs. When Owens bucked (sorry about the bad pun) the prevailing smooth Nashville sound with all of its string arrangements and pop-influenced vocal delivery, he revived a honky tonk style and gave it his own mark. Roberts picks up on that in these songs and uses it to echo Owens without aping him.
Overall, I’d have to say that Roberts’ guitar playing is my favorite part of this CD. His picking is clean and precise without being stiff and too perfect. There’s very little overdubbing of electric guitar parts. It’s usually just one guitar switching back and forth between tasteful rhythm work to blazing fast lead parts often with an acoustic guitar chugging away in the background. As a player who’s perpetually striving to reach an elusive level of proficiency, I’m always impressed with guitar players who can make intricate parts seem effortless and Roberts does exactly that. He’s up and down the fret board and each solo is fresh and different from every other. He’s an inventive and clever guitarist whose solos are a welcome break even to his smooth voice.
Although this is the band’s first release, it’s clear that these guys have put in their time on their instruments and as a unit. Years of professional performance experience has perfected their timing, their intonation, and their interplay. The trio makes an impeccably solid unit that presents these songs with energy. Despite their rock-solid delivery, they never feel stiff or overly rehearsed the way some bands get when they’ve been at it so long that they’ve become bored with the music and one another.
For fans of classic country and “billy heavy” rockabilly, this is a great record. It happens to hit quite squarely a few of my musical loves and I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to it. In fact, I had quite a difficult time finishing this review because all I wanted to do was listen and enjoy. I had to force myself to work instead of just letting go and getting lost in the music. Now that the review is done and the pressure of my obligation is off, I’m looking forward to listening simply for listening’s sake. But before I do, I gotta say: these guys deserve to be supported. Buy this record!