There’s nothing worse than tired old covers of well trodden Blues tunes; by the same token, there can be nothing finer than a set of classic numbers played by musicians who know their business, which is what we have here. Apart from seeing Bernie Marsden make onstage guest appearances at different times (he certainly gets around), most notably with Govt Mule and Joe Bonamassa, which showed he could hold his own with some of the finest Blues players around, I hadn’t really heard any of his own recordings.
It was a pleasant surprise to find that the veteran player is the complete package, not only the juiciest of guitar players but also a highly effective singer too. There are a few guitarists around that deserve to have gagging orders imposed on them, but Bernie is not one of them. The aforementioned Joe Bonamassa often bangs on about how undervalued the three Kings were as vocalists, which is true. However, the same applies to the majority of the familiar names from the golden era of American Blues, many of whom found a home on Chess records, the Chicago based label that is being celebrated on this collection.
It’s a testament to Bernie Marsden’s vocal abilities that all these numbers sound like they could have been written for him. This release is the second in what the artist is referring to as his “Inspiration” series; the first in the series paid homage to the Kings and here he takes on a set of pretty familiar songs (well, familiar if your first thought when reading “Chess” wasn’t the West End musical) from all the greats: Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley, Elmore James, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Milton (not forgetting a repeat performance from Albert King).
The approach hasn’t been to radically re-invent these tunes, numbers like ‘Just Your Fool’, ‘You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover’, ‘Grits ain’t Groceries’. Instead, while staying close to the original arrangements, they have made them sound fresher than the very freshest of spring daisies. The guitarist’s playing is beautifully controlled and fluid throughout. A tone and delicacy of touch to die for. I’m not comparing him to Peter Green, but I can’t help thinking of early ‘Mac, particularly when listening to the two original instrumentals, ‘Lester’ (for Lazy Lester?) and ‘Johnny’ (Copeland?), that close the collection.
The ensemble playing is excellent and a special shout out must go to Alan Glen on harmonica, who seems to be channeling Little Walter, plus Bob Handrell on keys. This is as perfect a set of covers as you could wish for; having listened to the album many times, it just gets better each time and has whetted the appetite for volume three in the series, coming out next year. In fact, why stop at three; with playing this excellent there’s no reason not to dive deeper into the treasure trove of Blues standards and give them a respectful but fresh lick of paint. The petition starts here.