Boz Scaggs references some of the most distinctive, timeless R&B recordings of the 1970s, even as he continues exploring outward from that tradition on Memphis. Like Scaggs himself, it’s not easily pegged.
The album, due on March 5 2013, via 429 Records, is guided in some respects by its surroundings. Listening to the opening track, it’s clear that something moved this group as they recorded in Memphis’ Royal Studio, where the late Willie Mitchell recorded Al Green and a host of other legends.
“Gone Baby Gone” finds producer/drummer Steve Jordan and Co. adding a classic snare-driven, Al Jackson-inspired rhythm — active in direct counterpoint to Scaggs’ satiny smooth vocal. Lester Snell’s swooning strings, so closely associated with the same era, also make “So Good To Be Here” a cushiony pillow for Scaggs’ ever more emotional and open vocal turns. He’s not exactly channeling Green’s sensuous cries, but Scaggs is certainly making a clear reference to them, adding to the intoxicating sense of reverie that opens Memphis. “Change My Mind,” with its churchy organ and frank plea for forgiveness, recalls those Hi Records triumphs, too.
It seems this album is setting up as a soul-brother vocal showcase for Scaggs, who came of age as a sideman with Steve Miller before launching a solo career that saw its zenith with 1976’s five-times platinum Silk Degrees. For all of that project’s urbane sophistication, however, it barely hinted at the vocal range Scaggs has today. Nobody can touch Green, even four decades later, for pure carnal rapture, but I’ll be damned if Scaggs — at least on these cuts — doesn’t get right up to the edge of it.
Scaggs keeps going, though, keeps expanding his horizons. His roving muse simply won’t allow him to make a genre record, no matter its undeniable charms. And such a thing wouldn’t have properly illustrated just how far he’s come at the mic anyway. As Memphis begins to sound less of a piece, it actually better frames Scaggs’ third-act revelations as a singer. He adds a dark sensibility to Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia,” reaching into the deepest depths of a brown bottle, while “Love on a Two Way Street” references the Stylistics’ sweet and utterly timeless sense of nostalgia. “Pearl of the Quarter” plugs into the randy R&B collaborative vibe of Allen Toussaint’s work with the Band, before Scaggs turns the Bo Carter 12-bar blues “Corrina, Corrina” into a devastatingly lonesome call.
Mixed in between are songs like Willy Deville’s “Mixed Up Shook Up Girl,” the Southern-fried “Cadillac Walk” and “Dry Spell” (a snarky delight featuring Keb Mo on slide and Charlie Musselwhite on harp) — tunes that would comfortably fit into the rootsy, bluesy template of 1997’s Come on Home. An all-star band that also includes bassist Willie Weeks, Ray Parker Jr. on guitars, Spooner Oldham on keyboards and the Memphis Horns quickly proves that it has no trouble catching a snappy groove, and holding on with a white knuckle grip. “Sunny Gone,” meanwhile, takes its cues from 2008’s standards set Speak Low, before Scaggs closes with “You Got Me Crying,” another straight-forward blues lament.
The results are something hard to pin down, in terms of theme, but easy to appreciate from the chin down. This is music for the heart, and for places somewhere lower. In that way, Scaggs has made a triumphal return, after a five-year span between projects. Listen without trying to figure things out, and he maps out a stunning argument for his place as one of our greatest living white soul singers.