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Chris O’Leary Band – Mr. Used To Be

Vizztone 2010

11 tracks, 48.06 minutes.

Chris O’Leary learned his trade by fronting Levon Helm’s band for six years and has also played with Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton. A former U.S. marine, Chris sings in a strong, clear voice and plays a mean harp. This is his first full CD and he wrote ten of the 11 tunes. There are no covers as the 11th track was written by guitar player Chris Vitarello. The band consists of Chris O’Leary on vocals and harp, Chris Vitarello on guitar and vocals, Frank Ingrao on bass and vocals, Willa McCarthy on vocals, Sean McCarthy on drums. The band is augmented on most tracks by Chris de Francesco and Andy Stahl (The Bonneville Horns) on baritone and tenor saxophones and by Bruce Katz on keyboards.

The CD starts with the title track which features a strong harp break and great piano by Bruce Katz right up front in the mix. Straight away you can sense that Chris has a good way with a lyric: “Well I don’t miss you baby, don’t you come home to me, you see, I’m perfectly happy to be your Mr Used To Be”. “Dress Blues” references Chris’s time in the army and is dedicated to his former army buddies, complete with a short burst of army marching chant bookending the song! A shuffle tune with plenty of swing, especially in Bruce Katz’s organ solo, the supporting horns add depth.

“Grease Monkey Mama” pays tribute to lady who is not only attractive but knows how to fix a car engine! Guitarist Chris Vitarello contributes a good solo here and the tune gives an opportunity to reverse the usual double entendres one usually associates with songs about car engines and women: “My baby turns those wrenches, she knows just what to do – hear my engine purr when she’s under my hood”! The slower paced “Blues Is A Woman” opens with excellent, fluid guitar backed by sympathetic horns before Chris’s vocal comes in to explain just how the blues is doing him wrong. “I know where blues lives and she don’t pay me no rent”.

“Water’s Risin’” is more of a rock’n’roll song and I enjoyed the harmony vocals on this one. The piano and guitar breaks are again excellent and the song offers plenty of opportunities for watery imagery: “you better grab a life preserver cos’ our relationship might sink “;” going down, taking in water”, for example. This is perhaps my favourite song on the whole CD.

“The Grass Is Always Green” is a shuffle that features harp at the beginning, a strong guitar solo and Bruce Katz cooking throughout on organ. “Christine” is a tune very much in the Muddy Waters tradition and so it is particularly appropriate that guest Bob Margolin is featured on slide. This is a stripped down approach, with acoustic bass and harp well to the fore. “When the bullets leave the pistol you can bet that the devil knows your name” gives a flavour of this rather downbeat song.

Rather like what John Nemeth has been doing on recent CDs “Walk The Walk” is almost a soul tune with the horns, augmented by trumpet and trombone, featured strongly and there is a nice sax break in the middle. “South Flats Boogie” is the shortest track on the CD, clocking in at less than 2 minutes, and is a feature for guitarist (and composer) Chris Vitarello. It certainly does what it says and drummer Sean McCarthy earns his corn throughout on flat out boogie beat!

“King of the jungle” opens with slide guitar and the solos are from Chris’s harp and the slide. The song is dedicated to Chris’s son Ryan:” he’s the King of the jungle, the baddest cat around.” The final tune on the CD is “Tchoupitoulas”, a street in New Orleans close to the river Mississippi. Appropriately the track has a jazzy, NO feel, partly due to Bruce Katz’s piano underpinnings, an enlarged horn section and drums very much in the second line tradition.

It is always good to see new acts writing their own material and not resorting to covers of the usual suspects. The Chris O’Leary band has produced a varied CD which deserves to get them more attention. A band to watch out for, in my view.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK. He is looking forward to attending the Blues Blast Awards in Chicago in October.

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