The Acoustic Blues and Roots Of Duke Robillard

By Matthew MacDonald
December 2015

Visit artist page

Duke Robillard

The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard (2015) Stony Plain Records

By Matt MacDonald

The cover photo for this, his latest offering, shows Duke Robillard sitting on a porch, in a rocking chair, strumming a guitar. He’s relaxed and the day is bright and fine. If, when this photo was taken, he had been listening to the music presented on this album, it would have been entirely fitting because its mood is very much that of the picture.

From his opening tenor harp (a tenor banjo with a wooden arched head) instrumental of “My Old Kentucky Home” right through to the coda of “Ukulele Swing”, an easy mood is established and maintained as Robillard, with many friends pitching in, samples a range of American roots music taken primarily from the 1920s to the 1940s.

The sound is – for lack of a better word – pleasant, generated in large part by the prominent use of mandolins and the clarinet. This is most striking on “Saint Louis Blues”, in which the 20 some odd piece Providence Mandolin Orchestra supports Robillard’s vocals by creating a very big, textured sound without being loud. For a song that has been covered so many times by so many different musicians, it’s quite an accomplishment that it is the very deserving highlight of a very good album.

This is not so much the case with Robbie Robertson’s “Evangeline”. It’s sung here by Sunny Crownover and, while good, it’s lacking somewhat in emotional nuance and oomph, despite – or perhaps because of – her full throated delivery.

Among the handful of blues songs on the list, Robillard’s live rendition of Robert Jr. Lockwood’s “Take a Little Walk with Me”, featuring Matt McCabe on piano, is the hardest driving one of the bunch. Jerry Portnoy also contributes harmonica on two tracks, “Left Handed” and on the other live recording, Robillard’s own “I’m Gonna Buy Me a Dog (To Take The Place Of You)”. The intensity of all of these is in keeping with the album’s low key vibe.

In addition to covering an array of old time American music, Robillard sprinkles four of his own songs into the mix. They all add nicely to the overall mood of this long in the works (a decade or so) album. Of these, the one that could most easily be taken for a ‘20s-‘40s vintage piece is “I Miss My Baby In My Arms”, a clarinet and piano flavored tune.

Throughout these 18 tracks, Robillard is everywhere, not only singing and playing a number of guitars, but also contributing on mandolin, tenor harp, ukulele, and cumbus (a banjo shaped stringed instrument from Turkey… so sayeth Wikipedia) and, in the process, giving his CD its signature sound.

Looking again at the cover photo after listening to this entire album, the only thing missing from it is a cold pitcher of lemonade right by Duke’s rocking chair. If you’re interested in gut bucket blues or flashy guitars, then this one is probably not for you. But, if you’re interested in hearing a great musician putting his own significant stamp on some beloved old roots tunes, then pull up a chair, pour yourself a glass – try to keep that summertime frame of mind – and enjoy.

<- back to Features