Friday, May 16, 2008
Freddie Roulette is the forgotten blues steel guitar legend
Long before Chris Strachwitz issued his first collection of Sacred Steel recordings on Arhoolie, guitarist Freddie Roulette had recorded on lap steel on a variety of recordings including Earl Hooker’s classic Arhoolie album, Two Bugs and a Roach, Big Moose Walker’s great 45, Ramblin’ Woman b/w Puppy Howl Blues, and the Chicago Blues Stars. What stood out was the vocalized quality of his playing and how his playing evoked trains, howling dogs and other sounds in a fashion that the sacred steel players and few other guitarists do today (Derek Trucks being a notable one).
Roulette has lived in the San Francisco area over three and a half decades. Back in 1997, he had a terrific album on Hi Horse, Back in Chicago, where he was backed by the late Willie Kent and his excellent band. Now guitarist Henry Kaiser has produced a new release by Roulette, Man of Steel, on the German Tradition & Moderne label. Certainly it provides enough space for Roulette to display his considerable talents, but the presence of several other guitarists, some of whom also play slide provide for what may be overall a less satisfying recording. It opens with Roulette reviving the Johnny Taylor/Albert King classic Breaking Up Somebody’s Home, with some startling playing but a lesser vocal, followed by Washington Phillips’ Tattler on which David Lindley takes the vocal lead and adds slide. Once one gets past the limited vocal by Roulette on the simple lyrics of You Got To Funkifize, one hears nice playing from Roulette but there is perhaps too much from Kaiser for these ears. With Ken Emerson providing a foundation on his lap steel, Roulette imaginatively takes lead on a refreshing reworking of Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder, before either Kaiser or Phil Emerson takes a nice solo. Roulette’s vocal comes off better on Willie Nelson’s Nightlife with his lap steel embellishments behind his vocal being a nice touch. A Hawaiian instrumental How Do Ya Do? provides nice lap steel playing from Roulette and Ken Emerson, and is followed down by a slowed down, stop-time rendition of Arthur Crudup’s That’s Allright Mama, with a nice vocal by Ken Emerson and more nice mood-enhancing playing from Roulette. Surfin’ is a nice instrumental set to a reggae groove, followed by a decent vocal on In the Heat of the Night. It is a wide-ranging set with some typically fine work by Roulette covering a variety of musical styles with some fine ensemble playing. Still this does not quite place Roulette’s electrifying guitar to the fore as the Hi Horse disc did.