Griff Hamlin owns the fingers behind the Blues Guitar Unleashed instructional website. So it’s not surprising that his debut album features lots of blues guitar. What is surprising, though, is that it’s a horn-driven album. Horns and blues are certainly not a new combination; B.B. King mixed the two to great effect. The twist with Hamlin is that his guitar playing, which is blues-based, also includes plenty of shredding. It’s an unusual sound and while it doesn’t work universally across his band’s debut, I’ll Drink to That, it provides plenty of compelling musical moments that make the case for the band’s underlying concept.
One of the challenges of an album like this is getting the vocals across. King’s voice could cut through a wall of horns like a preacher chiding his congregation for not coming to enough services. Hamlin’s voice lacks that gravitas, causing it to occasionally get washed out in the mix. In many ways, it’s an unfair expectation to put on Hamlin. He’s an incredibly talented guitar player working in a band formation that doesn’t leave much sonic space. But for some of the songs, you just wish Hamlin had a bigger voice.
The vocal issues are also more noticeable when you hear a song that complements Hamlin’s voice. “Louisiana Holiday” is New Orleans funk pop a la Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tightrope.” His voice sounds made for the genre, with a depth and personality that stands up well to the pumping horns and his own guitar work, which skates through the song at high speed. The song is essentially the iconic Bo Diddley beat, but the vocals, guitar, horns, and Ty Bailie organ turn the song into something special.
The album features some fun nods, too. “Almost Level with the Ground” borrows its title from a line in Sonny Thompson’s “I’m Tore Down,” made famous by Freddie King and again by Eric Clapton. King’s version had a strong horn chart, so it makes sense it would inspire Hamlin, even if the songs don’t bare any other resemblance. “Don’t Lie” borrows the riff from Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy.” Hamlin does a nice job nailing Vaughan’s tone and pays homage to Vaughan’s energy with some wild guitar runs that aren’t particularly bluesy, but that work well in the context of a blues, and which also stand up well against some mighty horns.
“Where Would I Begin” is another interesting song, a slow blues with more of a theatrical bent. The horns here work in the background, supporting the song while Bailie’s piano adds a jazz blues energy that will make you feel like you’re in a super hip cocktail lounge. The song builds, but not to such a crescendo that Hamlin’s vocals are ever washed out. Instead, you get to hear him loud and clear. Hamlin also steps in with a lyrical guitar solo, letting the horns reconvene the song around him, but never letting them overpower him.
Hamlin has a nice blues sensibility, which makes sense given the subject of his online teaching, but the delightful surprise of the album is “Louisiana Holiday,” which is bluesy, but also has an authentic New Orleans brass band sound. Interestingly, the horns for that one track are arranged by Jon Kubis. While the other horn arrangements, by Tim Akers, are also strong, the Kubis-arranged charts are something special. Hamlin might consider more Louisiana-flavored work with Kubis on his next album, as the two, together, created a special sound you don’t get to hear every day, unless you’re hanging out on Bourbon Street.
The Review: 8/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Almost Level with the Ground
– Don’t Lie
– Where Would I Begin
– Louisiana Holiday
The Big Hit
– Louisiana Holiday
Review by Steven Ovadia