Pittsburgh’s Bill Toms and Hard Rain Lead A Rock, Soul, R&B Charge Via ‘Keep Movin’ On’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Bill Toms was lead guitarist for Pittsburgh, PA’s legendary Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers and has since moved on to deliver now his tenth studio album, Keep Movin’ On, with his band Hard Rain. They are mainly a boisterous rock n’ roll unit complete with a three-piece horn section, the Soulville Horns, who together took on the challenges of the pandemic in producing this project. Parts and tracks for each song came in from distant points, ranging from Nashville all the way to Italy (where Toms’ European bass player lives). Ultimately, the well-traveled history and ease the musicians have with each other managed to circumvent the isolated circumstances, resulting in a seamlessly warm groove throughout the set. 

Staffed mainly by former members of the Houserockers with over 20 years of shared experience, Hard Rain features several players from their previous release, Good for My Soul. These players are Tom Valentine (bass), Tom Breiding (guitars), Phil Brontz (tenor sax),), Steve Binsberger (piano, organ), Steve Graham (trombone), Bernie Herr (drums) and Will Kimbrough who sits in on guitar just for the title track and “American Dreamer.” New additions include George Amer (trumpet), Simone Masna and Jim Spears (bass) and prominently music legend and multi-instrumentalist Rick Witkowski (drums, guitar, keyboards, bass, vocals) who also produced and engineered. Most tracks feature a sextet or septet. 

The ten tracks feature nine Toms originals. The first recorded track, the hymn-like “Man’s Soul Is On Trial,” positioned as the fourth track on the disc and rendered only by a trio with Witkowski doubling, was released in October 2020 ahead of the presidential election, and serves as a perfect introduction to Toms’ overall intended message of unity. The first official single, the anthem-like singalong “Everybody’s Talking,” was released in March.  “Still Got Love” opens the album with Toms’ vocals evoking the now tiresome comparison to The Boss. The ‘big sound” delivered by Hard Rain defies the pandemic-induced mingling of remote recordings.  This band instead packs a punch with guitars veritably surfing and cutting patterns above the blaring horns. 

”Come to Me” shows they can deliver a comforting grooving soul ballad while the horn-driven “Ain’t No Walkin’ Back” fits the animated rocking Stax soul style. The title track is a ballad but departs from the core album sound as there are no horns. It has a more atmospheric soundscape created by Brisberger’s keyboards, Kimbrough’s guitar loop, and Toms playing both guitar and mandolin. “Walk in My Shoes” introduces some funk while the mid-tempo “Business on a Higher Ground” is the other non-horns track, with the rhythm section of Spears and Herr. Given the absence of Witkowksi, it may have been from a previous session, yet it presents one of Toms’ most gutty vocals and strong turns from both Breiding and Brisberger.

“I Know” is another testifying burner but the closer, written by Bubs McGeg and featuring Kimbrough on lead guitar, and background vocalists, is easily one of the standouts – “I’m just like you/Red, white, and blue/I’m an American Dreamer.” The chorus and the echoing horns and vocals will linger in your head. While “A Man’s Soul Is On Trial” was intended as a political song, this one can serve as an uplift. Don’t be surprised if it’s considered for a Democratic campaign of some kind.

Some may simply consider Toms and Hard Rain a graceful blend of rock, soul, and rhythm & blues in the vein of Springsteen, Grushecky, and Southside Johnny but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find an excellent songwriter with a crack band that consistently delivers, whether live or in the collection of far-flung studios as heard here.

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One Response

  1. Hello Jim,

    Read your review of Bill Toms’ new release.
    He’s a good friend of mine and former bandmate of many years.
    Would you consider listening to and possibly reviewing my band’s
    new release?

    Regards,
    Gary West

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