Hadden Sayers, the hard luck Houston, Texas bluesman, made an inspired comeback after a series of personal setbacks made him all but retire from the music business by the late 2000s. Hard Dollar (2011) was his first blues record, but perhaps his first one written as a man who had really lived the blues. “Had” is the key word, though, because Sayers returns to his life’s passion with a different perspective, hitting the road not just to perform to people, but to connect to them. The rewards came from touching lives of those people and also the acclaim piled on Hard Dollar, and the single “Back To The Blues” earned a “Song of the Year” nomination at the 33rd Annual Blues Music Awards.
Now, Sayers is poised to follow up that unforgettable album with another unforgettable album. Rolling Soul, a reference to the 1962 Airstream he hauls around to hundreds of gigs across the country, is literally a road journal, with each song coming with the city and year the song was written and what inspired them printed in the CD inside sleeve. Apparently, Sayers likes to tell stories so much, he even enjoys telling stories about writing stories.
The passion for that — as well as his devotion to the blues and his faculty for Texas blues guitar — all bleed through on Rolling Soul. Sayers could have gotten by as a soul singer alone had he chose. There’s a slight scowl and roughness to his voice that is also paradoxically tender, too, and very distinctive no matter the setting. As a guitarist, he has an arsenal of tasty licks that he never overplays, leaving you wanting just a little bit more. The production is clean but not slick, rendering honest-to-goodness electric blues that’s not going to fade with the changing of fads and fashion. Backing up Sayers is his working band of Tony McClung (drums, percussion), Mark Frye (bass) and Dave DeWitt (Organ, acoustic and electric piano). Phil Clark pitches in with harmonica and baritone sax, while Jim Ed Cobbs adds a clavinet on the funkier numbers.
And like all the better blues records, this one takes you through a variety of attitudes and moods, not just the blue ones. “Don’t Take Your Love (Out On Me)” kicks off the album with homegrown Texas blues, complete with a Hendrix wah-wah guitar put through a Stevie Ray Vaughan filter. From there he goes to the Memphis Hi Records Al Green sounds of “Something Wrong In The World” and then rocks hard Muddy Waters style on “Want What You Have.” “Unlucky” is a great blend of Delta blues, replete with a nifty slide, and Professor Longhair. The New Orleans vibe gets even stronger on what sounds like some great, long lost Lowell George tune “Can’t Get You Off My Mind.” “Tippin’ In” is a snappy jitterbug come-on with Sayers pulling off a convincing Little Richard impersonation and a sharp rockabilly guitar to boot.
When Sayers plays that lowdown blues, he’s just as good. “Alone With The Blues” sports a great sparse arrangement with tremolo guitar, bass and drums way in back, Sayers’ vocal way up front sharing the space with his lead guitar, as he bends the notes with real mastery. His weary, aching vocals pace “Insomniac Blues” as DeWitt’s Pinetop Perkins piano can be heard tinkling in the background.
Sayers has served as Ruthie Foster’s electric guitarist and she returned the favor by sharing lead vocals on that award-nominated “Back To The Blues.” She does it again on “Lay Down your Worries” which sounds like a song written for Bonnie Raitt. “That’s What You Do,” one of my favorite cuts, is slippery jazzy organic funk featuring acoustic guitar and a stripped down arrangement.
It might be an overworked phrase to state that something “comes from the heart,” but that really applies to Hadden Sayers’ music. In a great music form that’s all about emotion, that’s the ingredient that often separates competent but commonplace blues and the kind of blues that’s a cut above, like the blues Sayers makes on Rolling Soul.