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Blue comes home musically, makes best album to date

Pretend It's Okay
Pretend It's Okay
By Buddy Blue

Clarence Records: 2001

This review first appeared in the May 28, 2001 edition of the American Reporter.

Seventeen, eighteen years back, those of us lucky enough to live in San Diego and to have heard about this little dive bar near San Diego State called Bodie's wandered upon what we were sure was musical history in the making.

Friday and Saturday nights about 9 or 10, the pool tables would be pushed off to the side, the lights would come up on a makeshift stage, and some of the best roots, blues and rock 'n' roll ever heard was laid down.

Cindy Lee Berryhill got her start there. Tom Cat Courtney, protege of blues legend Guitar Slim, was a frequent presence. Rock wildman and (then) future MTV host Mojo Nixon could be found opening there, as well.

But at the heart of this crazily creative oasis was a band known as The Beat Farmers.

To have seen The Beat Farmers at Bodies was to know in your heart that you were witnessing the birth of something not only great, but special – Important with a capital "I" even. It felt like we were watching the Beatles at the Cavern Club – and the lines to get into Bodies could be nearly as long as legend holds those of the Cavern to have been.

The Beat Farmers played hard-driving blues-based roots rock – not too far from what L.A.'s Blasters were playing, but with a looser, more swinging feel, driven by the loping rhythm figures of drummer/singer Country Dick Montana.

They did a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Reason to Believe" that put the Boss' own version to shame. They took the nursery song "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and turned it back into the hobo's earthy dream it was born as. They even made Rod McKuen hip, a task even Sinatra wasn't able to pull off.

And they wrote their own songs, with some of the best contributions from Buddy Blue, who along with the outstanding Jerry Raney was one of their two lead guitarists and vocalists.

Blue, quiet and shy off stage and a bit withdrawn on, roared with his pen, contributing classic bits of the Beat Farmers' storied book, songs like "Lonesome Hound," "Goldmine," "Lost Weekend" and "Glad 'n' Greasy."

For a couple of years, the Farmers' following grew, and with it the reputation of Blue, whose blues- and country-tinged guitar solos were the perfect complement for Raney's more straight-ahead rock approach. And when he took the lead vocal, Blue could inject a warble in his voice to break Elvis' heart, a quiver to make Bill Clinton genuflect in homage.

Then Blue left the band, in the midst of recording their second or third album, and the magic quickly dissipated. Fans took sides – Blue vs. the Beat Farmers. Blue started his own band, The Jacks, which released a wonderful if difficult to label album. The Farmers replaced Blue with guitarist/singer Joey Harris, and stayed together off and on until the death of Country Dick Montana.

A band's like a marriage, and nobody but the individuals involved really knows what led to the breakup. The Beat Farmers never really recovered from the loss of Blue – no knock on Harris, but he simply didn't mesh with Raney on guitar or vocal harmonies the way Blue had. Nor did he have the knack of writing great little melodies that Blues possesses.

After the split, Blue seemed to shy away from discussing his history with The Beat Farmers. Understandable – who wants to keep going over the past? The supposed feud between Blue and the Farmers seems to have been largely the creation of fans who had take up one side or the other.

More importantly, though, Blue also avoided his past musically. While the Jacks were a top- notch R&B-influenced combo, and his successive solo releases have taken everything from jump blues to neo-swing to jazz, he'd never really explored his country leanings that had been so visible in the Farmers.

Until now, anyway.

It seems that, at least musically, Blue is no longer fighting his own history – after a decade and a half, he seems at peace as a musician, and his latest release, "Pretend It's Okay," has the fullest, most complete sound of any recording he's made yet.

More than on any previous album, Blue's playing and songwriting combine all his many influences – jazz, blues and – yes, once again – country.

His guitar playing continues to gain intrigue and crispness, his singing is incomparably soulful, and he's written another batch of songs just as impossible to categorize as they are to get out of your head.

His love song to his wife, "Hurricane of Love," is quite simply one of the great boogie songs ever written. His ode to Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "57 Kids," is a great swamp blues song. "Jesse's Back in Town" is a tight little ballad equal parts rock and jazz.

What's perhaps different about this album is Blue's continued improvement as an arranger. He's always written great songs – experience has taught him what to do with them. His use of horns for punctuation and texture is masterful, his ability to set a different mood for each song remarkable. His use of a plain piano intro by Craig Doerge on the bawdy old barrel-house blues "You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now" puts you right into an 1880s saloon or cathouse somewhere west of Kansas City. (And the knowing lyrical exchange between Blue and Judy Henske is good naughty fun.)

Then there's his revisiting of "Goldmine," first recorded on The Beat Farmers' first album, "Tales of the New West." Interestingly, Blue doesn't really re-arrange it, sticking fairly close to the original. He's just a better singer, a better guitarist than he was then.

Former Jacks bandmate Mighty Joe Longa, Forbidden Pigs leader Billy Bacon and L.A. rocker Chris Gaffney all make guest appearances, and all contribute soul to the thick stew of music Blue has created here.

As to why Blue never made it to the big time – blame that on the corporate takeover of most radio stations. Fifty years ago an unknown hillbilly kid recorded by a small, independent Memphis label could still go on to become known as the King based on the fact that just about every disc jockey that heard his 45s was taken in enough to play them for a listernship that demanded more. But even if Elvis were alive and just starting out today, no way he'd ever make it big. You need a big record company behind you, with a big promotions budget – maybe even a brewery to sponsor your tours.

All Blue has is more talent than any hundred boy bands out there. For those of us lucky enough to run across him, that's reward enough.