The 50-plus-year institution known as Roomful of Blues continues to deliver jazzy, poignant jump blues with their 8-piece little big band. Roomful of Blues, established in Rhode Island in 1967 by Duke Robillard, has been led by guitarist Chris Vachon for the past 22 years. Surely, members have rotated in and out of the lineup but the original sound they laid down, beginning in the late ‘60s, is still very much intact. In a Roomful of Blues is their first studio album since 2011, their 19th overall and sixth on the Alligator label. The band has garnered five Grammy-award nominations and earned seven BMAs over the course of their tenure and may compete again with this stellar effort.
They deliver 13 diverse songs, ten of which were written by band members, exceeding the number on any previous album. Vachon penned or co-penned eight with one each from saxophonist Alek Razdan and keyboardist Rusty Scott. The longest-running member is tenor and alto man Rich Lataille, who joined in 1970. Vocalist Pemberton has been aboard since 2010 and the other players represent relatively new additions – Alek Razdan (baritone and tenor), Carl Gerhard (trumpet), Chris Anzalone (drums), John Turner (upright bass), and Rusty Scott (keyboards). This lineup not only sounds vital, but they prove to deliver a more wide-ranging set of material than is customary for the band’s huge servings of jump blues, which had a tendency of making them sound a little dated. Of course, that’s still here with the originals “She’s Too Much” which is imbued with Latin stylings and the Cab Calloway style horns. Razdan’s rollicking “I Can’t Wait” travels similar turf, but there’s lots more.
The band has made it a practice even from its earliest days to unearth obscure R&B tunes from the ‘40s and ‘50s. Here they offer “What Can I Do?” (originally cut by R&B legend Buddy Ace) and “Too Much Boogie” from the iconic songwriter Doc Pomus. They put down searing straight-ahead blues in “You Move Me” and surprise with the smoldering balladry of “She Quit Me again.” The title track is funky, leading into the tongue-in-cheek humor of “Phone Zombies.” “We’d Have a Love Sublime” borders on vintage rock n’ roll and guest Dick Reed’s accordion helps form the zydeco groove for “Have You Heard.” Unlike a jazz band, these tunes stay in the two to four-minute range, allowing only for short, crisp solos as the three horns are often in ensemble mode. Expect these talented players to stretch out in the live shows.
As a teenager/young adult this writer would often be at the Rhode Island beaches during the summer and can recall seeing “Tonight -Roomful of Blues” written on a chalkboard in front of the Blue Door in Narragansett. Fast forward over fifty years later and Roomful has become far more than a local bar band. Having played aboard in 22 countries including Lebanon, Poland, Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, Switzerland, Turkey and Russia. In my earliest memories, they were also just a bunch of Rhode Island teenagers who wanted to play blues Chicago-style as an electric blues band. They added a horn section in 1970 (when Rich Lataille joined) and released their first self-titled album on Island Records in 1977. Since then they have never looked back and now, they sound refreshed and as good as they always have.