Thursday, December 27, 2012

Better Place reviewed by Mark Thompson

Better Place
Billy Seward with his Memphis Brothers
SoulFonic Records
10 tracks/44:23

My first encounter with Billy Seward hap-pened in June at the Suncoast Blues Society's 15th Anniversary party, held at the famous Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa, FL. Billy and his Soulfonic band open the evening with a fine set of music featuring Billy's rich vocals and fine guitar playing. Several months later I ran into Billy at the Sarasota blues fest. We had a nice conversation that centered on our mutual admiration for the work of legendary soul singer O.V. Wright. Later in the day Billy stopped by to give me a copy of his CD that was released last year.

While I certainly enjoyed his live show, that experience did not prepare me for what I would hear when I first listened to the recording. Seward and his musical cohorts have crafted a stunning disc that at times recalls the glorious sounds of the Hi Record label and at other times focuses on the grittier music that made the Stax label a household name.

The recording sessions were held at the famous Ardent Studios in Memphis. The backing musicians are some of the finest that the city has to offer including Jim Spake on saxophone, Mark Franklin and Scott Thompson on trumpet, Landon Moore on bass plus George Sluppick on drums, Al Gamble on the Hammond B3 and keyboards and Joe Restivo on guitar. The last three are the members of the City Champs, a funky instrumental group that uses the Booker T & the MG's sound as the foundation for their free-wheeling jams.

Leading off with the title track, Seward's stirring voice immediately grabs hold of you over the riffing horns and the organ-drenched arrangement. Even better is the slow-burning “Two Things We Did Right”, with Seward's son, William, handling the lead guitar role in support of his father's gripping vocal. The band captures the Hi Record sound on “Love for Money” with Gamble's swirling Hammond organ chords punctuating the propulsive rhythm track. Seward voice has a fitting hurtful edge to it on one from the Stax files, “Share What You Got (But Keep What You Need)”. He pays tribute to O.V. Wright with a swelter-ing take of “Drowning on Dry Land”, incorporating some touches of reggae to spice things up.

Other highlights include Seward's lamen-tation “Blues Don't Bother Me” with the band once again in a deep funk mode while “Take Me for Granted” takes a momentary detour south for some robust New Orleans R&B with Gamble shining on the piano. Susan Marshall and Gamble supply the backing vocals to compliment Seward's voice crying out in anguish on his downcast original “Walking the Streets at Night”. His compelling singing on “You Don't Have To” offers up a plea for under-standing that would be hard to resist.
The pensive instrumental, “Soulfonic”, closes the disc in meditative fashion. The soulful ending is perfectly tuned to the rest of the project, which establishes that Billy Seward is a noteworthy talent as a singer and songwriter. His distinctive voice crackles with vivid emotional intensity without losing control. Mixed with strong, original tunes and a superb cast of musicians, the end result is a disc that deserves repeated listening. It is one of the best recordings I have heard in a long time – and comes highly recommended!

Reviewed by Mark Thompson

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