Li'L Ronnie & the Grand Dukes
EllerSoul Records ESP
One might wonder why someone would decide to start a new record label in the middle of a devastating economic downturn. EllerSoul Records deserves credit for opting to move ahead, beginning their business venture with a slim roster populated by musicians that were still searching for their turn in the spotlight. The label's release by singer Marion James, Essence, garnered plenty of praise from the critics while two other solo releases by guitarists Andy Poxon and Ivan Appelrouth are nominated for the 2012 Blues Blast Music Award in the Best New Artist Debut Recording category. Another release had Li'L Ronnie Owens on harp teamed with guitarist Terry Garland as an acoustic blues duo.
Now Li'L Ronnie steps out with his regular band, the Grand Dukes, which features Appelrouth on six strings, John Sheppard on bass, Mark Young on drums and John Fralin on piano. Janet Martin handles the backing vocal on five cuts. Three tunes switch line-ups with Owens getting support from Stu Grimes on drums, Mike Moore on bass and Jim Wark on guitar. The program features two Li'L Ronnie originals along with ten others he co-wrote with Appelrouth.
Owens is a twenty-five year veteran based out of Richmond, VA with three independent releases under his belt, all featuring the Dukes... His singing is quite compelling on “Screaming & Crying” with Appelrouth on acoustic guitar and North Side Slim sitting in on maracas and his duet with Martin on “I Won’t Take it Any More” is another highlight. The slower pace of “Love Never Dies” is another good fit for the leader’s pleading voice and Appelrouth adds a spell-binding solo. Owens delivers enthusiastic vocals on most tracks but on a few cuts, like a cover of Chuck Berry’s “C’est la Vie” and the title track, he falls short of matching the level of excitement that the band creates.
Tracks like “Sweet Sue” and the infectious “Can’t Please Your Wife” give Li’L Ronnie plenty of space for his robust harp blowing and Fralin makes good use of his solo opportunity. The swinging groove on Louis Jordan’s “Buzz Me” offers a nice change of pace while the opener, “Can’t Buy My Love”, finds the band sounding very comfortable in the traditional Chicago style. Owens gives the reeds on his harp a workout on “She’s Bad Bad News”, alternating a reedy sound in the upper register with a fatter tone on the other end of his instrument. On the appropriately-named instrumental “Late Night Blues”, Owens and Appelrouth engage in an impeccable musical dialogue, expertly playing off each other’s lines. “Fat City” is a showcase for more of the leader’s raw harp, spurred on by a pounding beat from Young.
This very solid effort gives EllerSoul another little gem to add to their growing catalog. Li’L Ronnie, Appelrouth and the rest of the band consistently deliver tight performances that feature quality musicianship without resorting bursts of gratuitous showboating. I hope that I get the chance to see the band live. No doubt that it will be a rockin’ good time!!!
Reviewed by Mark Thompson