On ‘You Get What You Give,’ Dave Keller Duets With 11 Artists On Fundraiser for Racial Justice and Equity (ALBUM REVIEW)

Two-time Blues Music Award nominee Dave Keller is an acclaimed triple-threat: an outstanding singer, an intense guitarist and a talented songwriter. Fueled by his love of deep Southern soul-blues and gospel, his performances ring out with passion, integrity, and uncompromising soul, even more, striking given that Keller is a life-long New Englander.  On You Get What You Give, Keller unites with a host of like-minded singers and musicians from the blues, soul, and gospel music worlds to create a very special album of songs dedicated to raising funds toward enhancing racial justice and equity. Joining him are Trudy Lynn, Joe Louis Walker, Annika Chambers, Johnny Rawls, Annie Mack, Dawn Tyler Watson, Brother Bob White, Carly Harvey, Toussaint St. Negritude, Katie Henry, Chad Hollister and many more artists who donated their time and talent for the cause.

“Back in June, after the murder of George Floyd, I watched this country seething with anger and pain,” relates Dave Keller about the new album’s birth. “As someone who has built his career performing Black music, and who has received priceless gifts from Black mentors, I asked myself: ‘What can I do to help?’ Due to Covid-19, all my summer gigs had been cancelled, and I had some extra time on my hands. So I thought, ‘What if I record my new originals with some of my friends, and donate the money from album sales to groups working for racial justice and equity?’ This idea brought immediate response in terms of pre-orders and the many musicians who wanted to participate.

If readers are not familiar with Keller, here are a few things to know. Keller got his first break when renowned guitarist Ronnie Earl chose Dave Keller to sing on his album Living In The Light. In just a few short years after, Keller received two Blues Music Award nominations, won the International Blues Challenge Best Self-Released CD Award, and was chosen for Downbeat‘s Best Recordings of the Year. Keller grew up in Massachusetts, loving music, but did not pick up guitar until age 16, and did not sing in his first band until age 20. But blessed with mentors including deep soul singer Mighty Sam McClain, mystical soul guitarist Robert Ward, acoustic blues master Paul Rishell and soul/blues man Johnny Rawls, Keller made up for lost time. Relocating to Vermont in 1993, Keller found fertile ground to grow his audience, and has become a household name there. (big fish in a smaller pond, you could say)

In many ways, this is his finest recording not only due to the special guests but also to solid songwriting and a nice variety of material. Keller’s core band of keyboardist Ira Friedman, bassist Alex Budney, and drummer Jay Gleason play mostly throughout. Saxophonist Mark Earley, of Roomful of Blues and Victor Wainwright, heads up a three-piece horn section that graces many tracks with trumpeter Tom Palance and saxophonist Mario Perrett. Trombonist Garth Retallack joins on “That Thing We Do.”  The album begins with “One More Tear,” featuring Annika Chambers in rousing horn propelled soul. “The Thing We Do” features Carly Harvey, known as DC’s Queen of the Blues, who has a unique style, that may have influenced Keller’s especially energetic outro guitar solo. Keller duets on the title track with his friend, Annie Mack against not only a backdrop of horns but a chorus that features his daughters, Havvah (18) and Idalee (15), as well as his partner Katie Sterling  He comments, “. Each of the singers brought their unique ‘soul’ to it. Their artistry has really been an inspiration to me. And the point of the album is to be a gift to the listener, who in purchasing it, is giving a gift to groups working for racial justice and equity. It’s one big circle, and it feels so good.”

“The Evil That Men Do”  (with Trudy Lynn, Annika Chambers, Annie Mack, Johnny Rawls) is the centerpiece of the album, written in response to the murder of George Floyd. Friedman’s grand piano creates the stately, somber feeling Keller was seeking and each of the vocalists sing a different verse to give it a more universal feeling. Palance’s trumpet solo is supposed to be reminiscent of “Taps”, bringing a wordless release to the mourning that so many of us are going through right now. The standout “Scratchin’ At Your Door” (with Joe Louis Walker) is a guitar-driven (by Keller) burner with Friedman’s B3 swirling and Keller’s longtime friend, Chris Robertson, adding the slide guitar. The song is for all the folks struggling with addiction, whether that be drugs or alcohol, or abusive ‘love’, or anything really. Spooky vocals from April Caspari and Walker accent the pain.

”Your Kind of Fool” features the unique soulful touch of Trudy Lynn over a Cuban rhumba groove while Juno Award winner Dawn Tyler Watson brings spirituality to “God Is Love / Love Is Everything,” inspired by 89-year-old Brother Bob who appears later. Earley takes the sax outro an the tune also features guitarist Vince Allen, about whom Keller says, , “…has special meaning for me. He is the 18-year-old grandson of the late Darryl Carter, my songwriting mentor. Darryl passed away two years ago. He was one of the finest Soul songwriters out there, having co-written “A Woman’s Gotta Have It” (Bobby Womack), “Blind, Crippled and Crazy” (O.V. Wright), and tons of other classic Soul songs. Darryl was always so encouraging to me, and to be able to have his grandson on this album completes a beautiful circle.

“The Spark” is the only non-duet tune and it yet represents one of the finest vocal performances on the album as Keller sings exquisitely with accompaniment only from Friedman’s beautiful acoustic piano on the ballad. “Make It to Tomorrow,” (with Chad Hollister), though an uplifting song, and “Land of the Lonely” (with Johnny Rawls) are fine tracks but rather staid in the company of these others, for example the standard gospel hymn “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” (with Brother Bob White) that creates such a deep feeling.  “The Kiss I Want” seems a bit of an outlier with its country overtones and Muscle Shoals vibe but it’s fun listening to Keller and Katie Henry get into a throwback mode.

The closer is another standout with Keller playing his 1931 National steel guitar and, becoming so inspired by Toussaint St. Negritude’s vocal that he added his harmonica for the first time to an album in 22 years. The recognizable groove is based on “This Little Light of Mine” and the song just keeps building gloriously. Toussaint is a spoken word artist in the vein of Gil Scott Heron. His family is from Alabama, he grew up in San Francisco, and currently resides in Vermont.

Keller put his heart and soul into this project, especially for the many black artists who have mentored and influenced him. All proceeds will go to groups that are working for racial justice and equity. This is a purchase you won’t regret on any level.


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