A fitting farewell
Reviewed April 2008
Mess of Blues
By Jeff Healey
To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.
TWhen Canadian blues-rock guitarist Jeff Healey lost his battle to cancer in early March at age 41, he was known mostly for his early successes, notably the multi-platinum disc "See the Light" from 1988 and his appearance in the film "Roadhouse." In that film, the blind bluesman whose blazing licks were played with his guitar flat in his lap played the leader of a hard-core bar band. With "Mess of Blues," recorded in late 2007, he appears to have come back to his roots.
Healey had not released a blues or rock studio album since "Get Me Some" in 2000. A musicologist with an enormous collection of vintage jazz albums, he turned his attention for the past seven years exclusively to Dixieland jazz and big band music, hosting a radio show as well as singing and playing trumpet and guitar. Three CDs recorded during 2002-2006 feature his Django-influenced guitar lines, but most often showcase his workmanlike trumpet solos. These discs showed that Healey was an amazing talent, able to play just about any type of instrument and any style.
In the liner notes for "Mess of Blues," Healey explains the use of his tour and house band from his nightclub as the musicians on the CD, and four live songs, as an effort "to be the best bar band one could possibly ask for." This is both the strength and a limitation of the music on the disc. The band starts strong with two live blues standards, "I'm Torn Down" and "How Blue Can You Get," then gets a little funky with a blues-drenched reading of "Sugar Sweet." On these three, Healey is in top form; no doubt aware of B.B. King's well-known cover of "How Blue," he walks a few bars in the master's shoes, giving the listener some stinging of B.B.'s vibrato and quicksilver licks before letting his fingers go.
The next cut, "Jambalaya," illustrates the one problem with the disc: questionable material selections on several songs. This classic is sung by Healey's keyboardist, Dave Murphy, and the "bar band" sounds just like that on this one. A brief, toned-down solo fitting the zydeco-boogie feel of the tune gets steamrolled by an overplayed, distorted second solo by Healey. Next, The Band gets a tribute with a straight-ahead reading of "The Weight" that is uninspired and appears out of place on the disc of guitar-oriented music.
The material problem crops up again in the next two tunes, "Mess of Blues" and "It's Only Money." The first, a Brill Building B-side for Elvis in 1960 arranged a lot like the original except for a couple of lines of hot guitar by Healey, is not likely to be familiar to most listeners. With "Money," the composer is keyboardist Murphy, who again sings. This is a derivative, straight-ahead rocker, with one of the most incendiary guitar solos on the disc. The remainder of the song sounds like Dan Baird of Georgia Satellites fame singing "Train Kept a Rolling," leaving one wishing that song (or another choice) had been included instead or this original.
The next two songs are back on firm footing. "Like a Hurricane" is an excellent live cover of fellow Canadian Neil Young's anthem, with Healey again working his guitar approach to mimic, to an extent, Young's electric primal scream and the arrangement carrying the feel of the original song. Also live, and probably the guitar highlight of the disc, is "Sitting on Top of the World." Healey's recent past playing jazz lines is evident on this chestnut, which starts with Murphy's keyboards (his playing is outstanding throughout the album), builds with some jazzy scales and accelerates to the classic, blazing style that gave Healey his reputation. The disc closes out with "Shake, Rattle, and Roll," done with rockabilly swagger and fluid solos by Healey.
Jeff Healey's final album has the feel of a well-rehearsed bar band doing a set, with an exceptional guitarist. That certainly was the stated goal, and it bears much similarity to his 1998 CD "Cover to Cover." The few missteps do not detract from this being an overall success, a very good album, and a must for Healey fans. Listening to the brilliant guitar work on this album it is easy to forget that this guy was blind, and playing the guitar on his lap. Jeff Healey was an amazing guitarist and musical talent who will be greatly missed.
Review by Frank Kocher, a longtime San Diego resident, musician, music collector and frequent contributor to The San Diego Troubadour.