Kenny Neal: Straight from the Heart Review

Blues singer/guitarist/producer Kenny Neal visits his Louisiana roots with Straight from the Heart, a wonderfully eclectic album of blues and zydeco recorded in Neal’s home town of Baton Rouge.

The album has a friendly, party vibe, from the guest artists to the way the song selection wanders between different styles, not in an aimless way, but more like a great jam session, where everyone is excitedly calling out different tunes.

For example, “Mount Up on the Wings of the King” features Neal and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram singing an uptown blues tribute to the joys of B.B. King, neither stealing King’s licks, but rather tapping into King’s energy and sense of melody. That transitions into “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” an Albert King favorite. The move feels natural, like Neal thinking about and paying tribute to his influences.

The tributes continue with “It’s Been So Long,” originally written and performed by Neal’s father, harp-player Raful Neal. Neal draws upon the original’s swamp pop sound, using horns to swell the song, and laying down some harmonica that would do his father proud. It’s a lovely moment on an album with so many of them.

What’s even more impressive, though, are the zydeco tracks. “Louise Ana,” a Neal original, features Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters. The track has a blues groove and up-front accordion from Big Nate Williams. Neal captures a mood, with his conversational vocals, but also by using his harmonica to bulk up the accordion, creating a gorgeous pairing. “Bon Temps Rouler,” also with Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters, is another Neal original that’s fast-paced zydeco, this track allowing Neal to show-off his lyrical lead guitar-playing.

There’s a fine line between meeting audience expectations and providing listeners with thrilling surprises. Neal threads that line adeptly, providing an album of solid, classic blues, but also folding in other styles. Neal does blues as well as anyone. His singing style is more melodic speaking than flowing vocals, but his voice has an honesty and texture that works for the tracks. The zydeco is a special treat, though, because Neal is able to write so well—and authentically—within the highly specific idiom. And the zydeco numbers also root the album in the geography of where Neal made it: Louisiana.

The album is an easy listen, but for anyone who wants to delve into its layers, there’s an impressive complexity. Straight from the Heart is honest, direct, fun, but also shows a smart, sophisticated blues artist at work.

The Review: 9.5/10

Can’t Miss Tracks

– I’ll Play the Blues for You
– It’s Been So Long
– Bon Temps Rouler
– Mount Up on the Wings of the King

The Big Hit

– Mount Up on the Wings of the King

Buy the album: Amazon

Steven Ovadia

Steven Ovadia interviews blues artists about their songwriting process for Working Mojo.

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