Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lucky Peterson Roots ComeBack Should Have Been Funkier!

This writer was living in Buffalo and doing a blues show on the University of Buffalo’s station WBFO, at the time I first saw and heard Lucky Peterson. He was playing keyboards behind his father, James Peterson, at a club on Main Street near downtown Buffalo. He was a teenager then, not the pre-teen that had appeared on the Tonight Show and recorded singles and an album. His talent was evident every time I heard him as part of his father’s band, including a couple of performances that were fundraisers for the station. One could not help but be impressed by his musicianship. I remember his dad telling me Lucky had perfect pitch. In the years since I left Buffalo I would hear about James and Lucky. Lucky had a break as he played in the bands of Bobby Bland and Little Milton, touring with them overseas and playing on their recordings, before recording for KingSnake I believe, and then he had an album on Alligator that was produced by KingSnake I believe. He continued to perform and over the years he was one of the artists that signed to Verve-Gitanes where he produced three of the finest blues recordings of recent years mixing in funk and classic soul with straight blues. Also on Verve, he accompanied the great Mavis Staples on a great album devoted to the music of Mahalia Jackson. Then he had a disc on Dreyfus that continued in the same vein as his Verve albums. Since then, he has also recorded for small independent labels like JSP, and also had publicized personal issues including substance abuse. Reportedly (and thankfully), he has placed these demons behind him.

Dreyfus Records has just issued Lucky’s latest album, “You Can Always Turn Around,” and the title and some of the songs have a reflective side as they deal with struggle and change. This recording was produced in the Catskills with some of the Woodstock musicians including Larry Campbell, Scott Petito and Gary Burke and the flavor is quite different from Lucky’s prior recordings. “Dust My Broom,” opens and if Lucky, who is playing a dobro here, sings forcefully (although a little over the top at times) it is hardly an original performance and the version of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” which seems like an unplugged adaptation of the Allman Brothers recording which itself was derived from Taj Mahal’s recording on his eponymously titled disc over forty years ago. Its hard to get excited with these covers. The cover of Reverend Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” strikes this listener as a much stronger performance.

Bill Callahan’s “I’m New Here” has a lyric about being new around town but musically its far from the blues and a bit more gentle vocal, spoken at times on a folky-sounding tune. “Trouble,” penned by Ray LaMontagne, has some really nice piano by Peterson as he sings about trouble been bothering his soul since the day he was born, worry not leave his mind alone until he was saved by a woman. The sparse backing helps his vocal stand out here. “Trampled Rose,” was co-written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, opens with Lucky sounding like someone calling believers to prayers and while the lyrics touch on themes of hurt and hurting others, it comes off off-kilter to these ears. Lucky picks up the electric guitar and with heavy fuzztone and a bit over-the-top singing for Lucinda Williams’ “Atonement,” that strikes this listener as pretentious. While he switches to steel guitar (dobro), the rendition of the late Bobby Charles’ “Why Are People Like That,” also sounds too forced. “Four Little Boys,” is a bit more low-key and this song he wrote his his father James, with the “Forty Four Blues” riff incorporated in its melody is a more appealing performance. The outstanding track here is the wonderful rendition of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” where there is a wonderful duet with Lucky’s wife, Tamara. His piano shines on this track as well and they do justice to this number that is identified with the great Nina Simone. Curtis Mayfield’s “Think” closes this album with steel guitar and acoustic slide giving this instrumental a country flavor.

You Can Always Turn Around” certainly represents a change from Lucky Peterson from prior recordings, and not necessarily for the better here. Not that the performances are terrible, but few of the performances are distinctive and stand out in the fashion of Peterson’s earlier recordings that were more grounded in soul and funk. And while some have suggested this album showcases Lucky’s singing, one might suggest these really haven’t listened to Lucky’s earlier recordings because he always has shown himself to be an excellent vocalist. Still, it is nice to have a new Lucky Peterson recording available, even if it is not among his best work.

The advance review copy was sent by the firm handling publicity for this release.

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