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The Memphis blues, again

boz scaggs

A new Boz Scaggs album is always a welcome arrival in this quarter. Whether it’s a collection of R&B warhorses, a set of jazz standards or — best of all — a clutch of new original songs, there’s a better than even chance that it will throw up an enduring personal favourite like “Loan Me a Dime” (from the first solo album he  made after leaving the Steve Miller Band in 1969), “Runnin’ Blue” (from 1971’s Boz Scaggs and Band), “We Were Always Sweethearts” and “Near You” (Moments, also 1971), “Breakdown Dead Ahead” (Middle Man, 1980), the sublime “Sierra” (Some Change, 1994), “Ask Me ‘Bout Nothin’ (But the Blues)” (Come On Home, 1997), and “King of El Paso” and “Thanks to You” (Dig, 2001).

I’ve interviewed him a couple of times, first in 1971, when he was spending time in London (and played a memorable gig at the old Country Club on Haverstock Hill with the fine band from his second album), and then in 1994, on a plane from San Francisco to Los Angeles, when Some Change had just come out, ending a long silence caused by his decision to stay at his Bay Area home in order to be close to his growing sons, following the end of his first marriage. I liked him a lot. He seemed to be a man who had the whole thing in perspective. By pacing his career carefully and not getting too carried away when “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” turned him into a white-suited pop star in the late 1970s, and by holding on to his enthusiasm for music, he’s managed to maintain a consistency so impressive that there’s virtually no one of his generation whose releases I look forward to more, even though I know they’re not going to be pushing back any boundaries.

The new one is called Memphis, because that’s where it was recorded. In Willie Mitchell’s Royal Recording Studios, in fact, with a basic band of Scaggs himself and Ray Parker Jr on guitars, Willie Weeks on bass and Steve Jordan on drums, plus guests including Charles Hodges on organ, Spooner Oldham on various keyboards, Keb’ Mo’ and Eddie Willis on guitars, Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, the crack horn section of Ben Cauley (trumpet), Jack Hale (trombone), Lannie McMillan (tenor) and Jim Horn (baritone), and a small string section arranged by Mitchell and Lester Snell.

Many of the songs will be familiar to fans of rock ‘n’ soul, among them Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia”, the Moments’ “Love on a Two Way Street”, Tyrone Davis’s “Can I Change My Mind”, Jimmy Reed’s ‘You Got Me Cryin'”, Al Green’s “So Good to Be Here” and — the biggest surprise — Steely Dan’s “Pearl of the Quarter”. They’re done in the way you’d expect from Boz, which is to say with taste and finesse and respect. Too much of all those qualities for some people, probably, but it doesn’t bother me, although I’m not as bowled over by his gentle version of “Corrina, Corrina” as others seem to be: I’m happy to stick with the reading of this lovely song included 50 years ago in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. “Rainy Night in Georgia”, “Can I Change My Mind” and Moon Martin’s “Cadillac Walk” are also a little on the underwhelming side. An immaculately sharp treatment of Willy DeVille’s “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl” (nothing to do with Patty and the Emblems’ girl-group classic of the same name) is the track I’m going to take away from this album, along with the opener, a slinky Scaggs original called “Gone Baby Gone” in which he taps into the real Memphis vibe. And that’ll do for me.