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Billy Lavender – Memphis Livin

I55 Productions LLC

14 tracks/57:38

Billy Lavender may not be a familiar name to many blues fans, but he is considered to be one of the best guitar players involved with the Memphis music scene. He has been playing for over forty years – and was part of the generation of left-handed guitar players that simply turned a regular guitar upside-down and never missed a beat, despite the strings being in reverse order. Taking the role as leader on this collaborative project, Lavender has gathered together a cast of veteran musicians and vocalists and turned them loose on a batch of original material that serves as a primer on the diversity of the Memphis musical tradition.

Lavender turns in a solid vocal on the roadhouse rocker, “Get Along” but his fiery guitar work really makes an impression. “All the People” is a soulful plea for love and understanding with a multi-tracked vocal from Lavender. Brad Webb joins Lavender for an acoustic duo take on the brief “If I Could”, with Webb’s dobro setting the mood for some fine vocal harmonizing.

Drummer/percussionist Tony Adams takes the vocal lead on the opening track, “Singing the Blues”. His deep, gritty voice is a great match for this raucous tune, with Lavender matching the singer’s intensity on his guitar. “Bad Boy” gives Adams the opportunity to show his skill as a blues singer while “Delta Time” finds him belting out the lyrics on a blues theme with a heavy rock-influence.

The energy level skyrockets when Reba Russell digs into “Let’s Party”, her vocal raising the roof with help from Blind Mississippi Morris on harmonica. Even better is her performance on “Blue”, a slow blues tune. Russell’s voice adopts a sultry purr before easily sliding through her impressive range to belt out the chorus with conviction. She also takes the lead on “Bottom Line” and delivers another strong performance on this ballad, salvaging some interest on what is the weakest cut on the disc.

With his gritty vocal style and some down-home harp playing, Vince Johnson makes the most of his time in the spotlight. “Cold As Ice” finds him pleading with his woman to come back home and using his harp to convey just how strong his feelings are for her. Lavender contributes a concise guitar solo. Johnson and Lavender tear through the up-tempo “Shake It”, contrasting Johnson’s simple harp phrases with Lavender’s cool, precise guitar licks. Another highlight is “3AM”, another slow blues with a soulful vocal from Johnson and more of Lavender’s impressive guitar work.

Ken Dinkins handles all of the vocal arts on “Tonight”, a rock ballad that conjures up memories of Jimmy Hall and Wet Willie. “Just Chillin” has a brief vocal refrain over a deep, funky groove with Johnson’s harp taking the lead.

While the assorted vocalists get much of the attention, the success of this project also rests on the stellar accompaniment. The unsung hero is Russell Wheeler, whose work on the Hammond B-3 organ consistently delights as he breathes life into each arrangement. Dan Cochran and Mike Stoker share the bass guitar duties while Brad Webb covers the rhythm and slide guitar parts. Additional vocal help comes from Maria Spence and JoJo Jefferies.

Collaborative projects like this can often fall short of the mark due to the difficulty of melding so many different styles and personalities into a coherent package. The fact that Billy Lavender makes it look easy is a testimonial to the lessons he has learned over his lengthy career. And he certainly has a talented group of musical compatriots helping him achieve his musical vision. This debut recording is a delight from start to finish. Can’t wait to hear more from Mr. Lavender !!!

Reviewer Mark Thompson is president of the Crossroads Blues Society in Rockford. IL.

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