By Matt MacDonald
July 2016

Visit artist page

Sugar Blue

Voyage (2016)

MC Records (MC0079)

Voyage, Sugar Blue’s eighth release, finds him moving in a different direction from his earlier work. Immediately identified by his heavily amplified, lightning fast, upper register harmonica technique, Blue brings to these 12 tracks a largely different playing approach and more singing. While there are tunes here that would fit well on his other American albums, the acoustic nature of this one hearkens back to his early days in New York City and Paris.

Voyage is inward looking, with Blue devoting a fair amount of it to his blessings (there are three songs expressly about his family), his curses overcome (“12 Steps”), his past, his present, and his future.

One of the most pleasing songs here is “New York City,” a Piedmont style, Victrola sound quality reminiscence of his early musical career leading up to his departure for Paris and greater fame in the 1970s. For a listener curious about the important people and places in Blue’s musical life during that pre-Stones time, this is a very enjoyable place to start.

As overtly personal as Voyage is, its most provocative offering is the protest/call for unity, “Life on the run.” Addressing the increasingly exposed recent pattern of racial violence (Trayvon Martin is alluded to, though not explicitly mentioned) and the not so recent pattern of it (Emmett Till is named), he invites singer/social activist Maya Azucena to help out. While having a guest vocalist is new for Blue, this kind of social commentary is not. He has pointed things to say on almost all of his albums, whether about Iraq, New Orleans, or just about the everyday raw deal that too many people consistently get. With them, he continues an old blues tradition that, over its history, seems to occasionally get lost in the shuffle of good times and romantic woes.

This statement aside, Voyage is fueled by positive vibes, the underlying force in this very different Sugar Blue album. Some of the titles help to make this point: “On My Way (Sarah’s Song),” “Love Is Everywhere,” and the chromatic “Sunshine.” Things are going well for him these days; he’s married to bassist Ilaria Lantieri and they have a three year old son, James. This is reflected in the music he’s writing, singing, and playing here.

Sprinkled in with those, however, is some of his more trademark sound. The Rico McFarland riffed “One” is a mixture of several different styles that, together, come right at the listener. Blue’s catchy take on Ray Charles’ “Mary Ann” (he triple dubs his chromatic in place of a horn section) is also notable.

But it’s “Time” – the album’s closer – that, taken with the CD as a whole and especially its first track, is most telling. It’s vintage Blue, amped up and edgy - the song a warning to seize the day. The opening track, “On My Way,” is acoustic and soothing, a statement of eagerness on that day being seized. Voyage begins with the present and future and ends with a wave to the past. The same could describe the start of an actual voyage, personal and musical. For an album – or a musical painting, as Blue might describe it – like this, these songs make for a beautiful frame.


<- back to Features