Swing Them Blues, Don't Shove 'Em!

Steppin' On Time (Mascita Music)
Mr. Downchild and the Houserockers

By Jeff Kallman

Here is one of the most likeable blues albums of the year. This Ohio quartet wears its Chicago and jump influences on its sleeve - Mr. Downchild's harmonica style is equal parts Shakey Horton, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Paul Butterfield. Guitarist Dean Cohen sounds as though he took lessons personally from Robert Jr. Lockwood (whose supple guitar was so critical to Sonny Boy's classic recordings, and with whom they seem to have a friendly personal and musical relationship) and Lonnie Johnson - but they strive for and project their own feeling. .

The Houserockers make very certain that Downchild has every inch of the room he needs to draw out every side of his songs without leaving themselves as just a backing group. Downchild uses his mature yet sensitive voice for seamless phrasing. And try not to let the non-exploding attack fool you: this quartet knows the meaning of keep it simple, keep it swinging better than most, and they do it without shoving. They could give more than a few lessons to most of this city's so-called bluesmen who spend more time cranking the amps to air-raid level and whanking out the tiresome Stevie Ray-wannabe routines. (The one concession to the SRV style, seemingly, is the set closer, "Solid Gone," which shuffles it "Cold Shot"-style with less than half the volume, no Hendrix-Winter ripoff guitar tricks, and some real swing.)

Downchild and Cohen are a well-matched instrumental tandem as well, carrying on soul-searching conversations with each other. Downchild's alternatively spare and liquid harmonica lines are splendid foil for Cohen's supple chords and fluid, jazz-flecked fills and solos. Upright bassist Bob Palladino walks his lines spryly, while drummers Mike Delia and his successor Donnie Shumaker share a rare facility for being unafraid of a well-slapped backbeat.

Downchild's songwriting is very strong but somewhat inconsistent. There isn't a bad song on this album, but it is as though he hasn't quite settled on the best way to construct what he wants to say. Only "Changed My Way of Livin" is truly problematic, however, being yet another cop of Elmore James's "Dust My Broom," and it features Cohen's least effective guitar work -- he handles the slide well but he's not even close to being as agreeable in that mode as he is elsewhere.

Still, here is the evidence that you don't have to shove the amps up to three-counties-over volume playing the same exhausted repertoire everyone else plays in order to put a better-than-average blues band together. And even if you're not looking for a band model, you're still in for some very exquisite music.