Lloyd Jones: Trouble Monkey -- by George Graham
It's getting to be a fairly common story these days. With the renewed popularity of the blues, it seems that every month or two a really outstanding recording will appear by a performer who turns out to be a long-time veteran of some regional music scene; someone who after 20 years or more of playing the blues appears with a nationally-released recording that has blues fans wondering why it took so long. It's also been illustrative of how some excellent regional blues scenes have been thriving in locales outside the genre's usual meccas.
This week's recording is yet another that will have blues fans delighting in the discovery of a fine talent who has been plying his trade for a long time in relative obscurity. His name is Lloyd Jones, and his new CD is entitled Trouble Monkey. This is in fact Jones' third release, but the previous two didn't see wide distribution outside of his Portland, Oregon home base.
Like Providence, Rhode Island or Atlanta, Georgia, Portland is not a town one usually associates with the blues. But the Pacific Northwest has had a thriving blues scene for quite a while, going back to Charles Brown in the 1940s. More recently, Robert Cray was one of the region's most renowned blues exports. Vancouver, British Columbia, a few years ago brought forth a great horn-laden group called the Powder Blues that actually had two releases through Capitol Records.
Lloyd Jones was born into a musical family -- his father was a jazz trumpeter and encouraged his three sons to take up the instrument. Naturally, the young Jones said he "ran as fast as I could the other way." But his brothers Bob and Paul were getting into music, and it was Paul who taught the 10-year-old Lloyd the drums as Paul was taking his own drum lessons. Lloyd was attracted to the drums, citing among other early influences another of the Pacific Northwest's famous groups, the Kingsmen of Louie Louie fame. It was also Paul who took a Lloyd at age 14 to a concert by James Brown. That concert left Lloyd a fan of horn arrangements in a blues band, something that is reflected on virtually every track of his new CD.
By the 1970s, as a drummer, Lloyd Jones was leading a band called Brown Sugar around the Portland area, and among the group's fans were a young guitarist from Eugene named Robert Cray and Curtis Salgado who later become lead vocalist with Roomful of Blues. Jones also took up the guitar and used the instrument to relax doing old delta blues standards. After the demise of Brown Sugar, Jones went on the road for a while with the Drifters, and performed in the Portland area with keyboard man Glenn Holstrom, who is a prominent part of this CD.
By 1979, Jones decided to take time off from music, feeling somewhat frustrated with the music business, and used the time to do some writing. He eventually resumed performing, often as a solo act with his guitar, and later in a band with Curtis Salgado. Ten years ago, when Salgado left to join Roomful of Blues, Jones formed a band he called The Lloyd Jones Struggle, to describe the state of his musical career. The group recorded two apparently self-released albums, which didn't go very far. Through an unlikely series of events involving record producer Joe Harley hearing Jones' music on a boat captained by a former Portlander while vacationing in Bora Bora, Jones found himself with an unsolicited recording offer from an audiophile label that has been getting into the blues quite a bit.
The result is Trouble Monkey, one of those albums on which everything just seems to come together in exactly the right way. There's great material, the performances by the band members are stellar and everybody seems to be having a wonderful time. Most of music is original by Jones, though his songs have the quality that makes them sound as if they been around as blues standards for years. The styles on the album tend to avoid the familiar electric shuffles of Chicago blues, and instead run toward funky Memphis and New Orleans influenced grooves and also include soul and early R&B as prominent ingredients. The nine-piece group includes a four-member horn section playing classic-style R&B arrangements written by keyboardist Holstrom, and Jones serves up the songs in an amiable, gravelly tenor that recalls Delbert McClinton. According to the liner notes, though, that's not entirely what Jones usually sounds like. Three days before the scheduled sessions, which were to be recorded live with no overdubs, in an expensive Hollywood recording studio, Jones came down with an ear and throat infection. But he was able to carry on, with the enthusiasm of the event overcoming his ill health.
The method of recording adds much to the immediacy and honesty of the music. In addition to everything being recorded live in the studio, the session was also mixed live directly to an analogue two-track tape machine, thus eliminating the potential and temptation for fixing things in the remix. Further, the recording was done in just two long days in March. But despite the pressure or perhaps because of it, everybody played superbly. So while Trouble Monkey has a polished studio sound, it still has the authentic live ambience of a blues performance.
The album draws on another aspect of older blues. All of the tunes are short by today's standards, with none of the dozen tracks exceeding the five minute mark. The songs and the snappy arrangements are what make the impact, rather than long guitar solos. Jones does solo on guitar here and there, but rarely for more than eight bars.
Things begin with the album's lengthiest piece, Can't Get You Off of My Mind. It's a strong song with a rather typical blues lyric theme. The rhythm is a kind of funky march that's hard to resist. <<>>
Another of the album's strongest tracks is the title song Trouble Monkey. It's another funky arrangement with some vocal help from Terry Evans and Ray Williams. <<>> Jones gets a chance for another of his compact and tasteful guitar solos. <<>>
There aren't many slow songs on Trouble Monkey, but Jones and company rise to the occasion. I Broke My Baby's Heart is an original tune that sounds as if Otis Redding could have written it 30 years ago. The tasty horns really shine on the track. <<>>
The other slower song is a kind of classic-style slow blues Long, Long Way to Go that features with Jones on acoustic guitar. <<>>
Jones and company look to a sort of New Orleans mambo for influence on another of the album's strong tracks, I'll Be Laughing (When He Makes You Cry). The lyrics may not convey the most kind-hearted sentiment, but the performance is first-rate. <<>>
Also with influence from the Crescent City is Rosemary, an old Fats Domino song. <<>
As close as the album gets to a standard blues shuffle is the track No More Crying. Again, Jones comes up with a song that sounds if it was written 40 years ago. <<>>
There's also a bit of a big-band side to the album. One of the non-original songs Old Friends shows the group can swing. <<>>
The album ends with one of its most appealing tracks, a version of Sleepy John Estes' Drop Down Mama. The liner notes say that after two exhausting days of recording and lights being shut off in the studio, Jones found himself with thirteen minutes remaining of booked studio time, so he tossed off this wonderfully spirited version of the tune with album's drummer Reinhardt Melz adding a playfully funky groove. <<>>
Lloyd Jones' new release Trouble Monkey has become one of my favorite blues albums of the year. This long-time Portland, Oregon-based performer is a wonderful discovery for blues fans who can feast on this album's nice blend of blues, old-fashioned R&B, Memphis soul, funky rhythms and tight horn arrangements. Jones is also a great songwriter who comes up with material that seems to have fallen out of some time warp from the golden days of R&B. Further, there's not a single weak track on the record, with the performance by all involved being stellar, despite some considerable pressure in making this live-in-the-studio album in two days. The band is exceptionally tight, while the no-overdubs-or-remixing-allowed recording method captures the spirit and essence of the blues.
Sonically, the album is also outstanding. Some blues fans weaned on the old Chess blues style might be expecting a grittier sound, but this album's clarity of mix, understated use of effects, and avoidance of compression lets you hear the level of musicianship in a way that sounds great either at full-tilt volume or down low. Engineer Michael C. Ross deserves kudos.
It's little wonder that Robert Cray has called Trouble Monkey, by his old friend Lloyd Jones, "just the best damn record I've heard in a long time."
This is George Graham.
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