Roomful of Blues – Watch You When You Go (2002)

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They haven’t taken more than a week off since Nixon’s first term. They’ve withstood disco, fathering a rafter-shaking, swing-blues style that saw its own too-fey-by-half revival. (Did you ever notice that all those bands a few years back had names with the word Daddy in them?)

So it is that after 30 years, nine guys still make their living as that funky tabernacle choir, the Roomful of Blues.

Formed in the late 1960s by Duke Robillard, Roomful found its widest popularity much later. Partly that’s because they didn’t do much recording early on, until current saxophonist Rich Lataille joined the band’s first horn sectionin 1970.

It’s also partly due to the luck of timing: Roomful of Blues was a hard-swinging herd of retro cats when being a hard-swinging etc., etc. wasn’t cool.

But they’ve been nominated for four Grammys since 1983. They were named best blues band of the year in the Down Beat international critics poll a few times. They won a WC Handy Award for best instrumentalist, too – a tribute to the fat, cool sway of Lataille’s blowing.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Duke Robillard talks about his 2011 solo effort ‘Low Down and Tore Up,’ memorable dates with Herb Ellis and Tom Waits — and a lasting passion for Chuck Berry.]

The line-up has been ever-changing: Roomful lost a whopping six members after that Christmas record a few years ago. But the vibe is still cleanly soulful, knee-slapping traditional – and above all fun.

Take “Watch You When You Go.” As with the others before, the band’s new album is like a windows-down tour of all the blues haunts.

You hit a bump and realize you’re leaving Chicago, headed south to Memphis. You gas up in New Orleans and floor it for Kansas City. But not before a pit stop for this lazy Texas shuffle.

Perfect example: They get all over south Louisiana legend Earl King’s “Your Love Was Never There” – then they boogie through the title track.

That down-home diversity, coupled with a new graduating class of performers every few years, always gives Roomful a new sheen: “I feel like I’ve been in two or three bands,” Lataille has said. “The repertoire might be (large), but I’m probably the only one who knows them all.”

That long tenure is rewarded on Roomful’s new album with a session-closing instrumental Lataille wrote called “Where’s Bubba?”

Returning is scorching vocalist Mac Odom, who joined the band for 1998’s “There Goes the Neighborhood.” In the tradition of big personalities the band has had over the years (Curtis Salgado, Ronnie Earl, Sugar Ray Norcia), here’s a guy who doesn’t get swallowed up by the bright blast of horns behind him.

Guitarist Chris Vachon, who’s been with Roomful since 1990, produces and writes much of their original stuff. (He’s also gigged with founder Robillard over the years.) A particular favorite on “Watch You When You Go” is Vachon’s tune “The Salt of My Tears,” which chugs along with the kind of chin-wagging rattle associated with the best R&B of their original era.

Roomful isn’t done here. They prove equally adept at straight blues, a killer take on “Wait and See” (by Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew) and the Stevie Ray-swagger of “Backlash.”

Ain’t nothing new. Nixon’s gone, but they remain. Roomful still piles into the tour bus, making about 200 gigs a year.They still present a coiled, jumping blues that, through turnover and new commitment, hasn’t wrinkled with age.

And they still fill dance halls by the roomful.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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