Monday, September 19, 2011

Mr. Used to Be reviewed by Mark Thompson

Mr. Used to Be
The Chris O’Leary Band
Fidellis Records/Vizztone Label
11 tracks/48:12

For most of you, the name Chris O’Leary will not ring any bells, although long-time fans of Levon Helm will remember O’Leary from his days as a member of Helm’s Barnburners band.  The rest of us should gladly settle for the opportunity to hear this former Marine’s exciting debut recording.

O’Leary is a powerful singer, blessed with a voice that make you feel the range of emotions he explores on the all-original program. He is also a talented harp player, doing some robust blowing on the “Tchoupitoulas” with its strong New Orleans influence and shifting to the potent Muddy Waters Chicago blues style on “Christine” with guest Bob Margolin on slide guitar. The rest of the band includes Chris Vitarello on guitar, Sean McCarthy on drums, Frank Ingrao on bass and Willa McCarthy on vocals. Other special guests include Bruce Katz on all keyboards and the Bonneville Horns – Chris Difrancesco on baritone & tenor sax along with Andy Stahl on tenor sax.

“Dress Blues” finds O’Leary paying tribute to his years in the Marine Corp over a jumping rhythm, adding a few lines about the politicians who stay safe at home while they send troops off to fight their wars. On the title track, the leader displays his clever sense of humor as he describes his satisfaction at being an ex-lover. “Grease Monkey Mama” is pure rockabilly with a sound like the early days of Elvis Presley’s career. As strong blast from O’Leary’s harp opens “Grass is Always Greener” and later  Vitarello delivers a biting solo while Katz fills the arrangement with his soulful organ playing.

“Walk the Walk” is an up-tempo romp with the leader and Willa McCarthy sharing the vocal over sharp blowing from the horn section. The band rocks even harder on “King of the Jungle”, dedicated to O’Leary’s son. Vitarello lays down some nasty slide guitar while O’Leary shouts and hollers over the song’s raging rhythm. “Blues is a Woman” shows that O’Leary can sing the hell out of a slow blues with Vitarello once again tearing it up on guitar. Another highlight is “Water Risin’ “, with O’Leary’s singing at times sounding like Kim Wilson on another cut that rocks from start to finish.

How good is O’Leary? All you need to know is that he was nominated in the Best New Artist Debut category this year for the Blues Music Awards and the BluesBlast Music Awards. That level of recognition doesn’t come easy but one listen will quickly show you that O’Leary deserves every bit of praise that he gets for this excellent recording.

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