Frankly I am getting a little tired of listening to the latest Dan Patlansky album and being disappointed yet again because I just do not hear anything particularly engaging on it. Each time I have to concede that the man can sure play his guitar and then qualify that concession with the observation that technical expertise alone does nothing for a performance if there is no song to start with and there is no real emotional element to whatever the guitar genius is playing.
Blues is all about emotion and feel and not so much about the technique or, to put it another way, the technique should be a given and almost off-hand and should not be the main and overbearing component on show. Dan Patlansky seems to be all about technique. Over the course of his career he has progressively sacrificed feel for technique and good song writing in favour of arrangement. I just do not understand why he is even playing blues.
It is hard to believe that Dan Patlansky is driven to write songs and release albums by some inner creative demon. The songs themselves do not demonstrate a rare talent or even expression of things that need to be said. This point is borne out by the godawful cover versions he records. My guess is that Patlansky records albums to sell at his gigs as an additional source of income.
20 Stones (2012) is no exception. In fact, its defects are in many ways even more exasperating than the predecessor, Move My Soul, where Patlansky obviously attempted to make a big statement by incorporating pop elements and anthemic instrumentals into the Stevie Ray Vaughan homages. My first reaction to 20 Stones, from the opening track onward, is that the focus has shifted to emulating Jimi Hendrix and Rory Gallagher and, as modern influence, Joe Bonamassa, who seems to be the current darling of the mainstream blues rock audience.
It seems to me that Dan Patlansky is now truly inclined more towards tough blues rock than to deep blues. This is a rich enough vein to mine and can be as rewarding as blues, mostly because the music still relies on the bedrock of blues and melody. With sufficient inventiveness and dexterity the musician can still supply a wonderful experience. Just write some damn tunes and sing them as if you mean it, man!
Jet Black Camaro, Black Cat Bones and Crimson House Blues, to name but three local acts in the same ball park, run rings around Patlansky and not because their guitarists are better than he is. The bands simply have more emotional punch and better songs. Gerald Clarke makes properly soulful blues albums. Albert Frost has a gift for melody, arrangement, sings well and is every bit as good a guitarist as Dan Patlansky but has the most important gift of all, the intuitive understanding that subtlety is a more powerful tool in the musician's kit bag than over the top soloing.
Patlansky should have a major rethink about what he wants to do with his music. Most probably he should find a collaborator who can help him write actual songs with tunes that he can sing with commitment. The inflammatory guitar prowess can be a wow onstage, though even there it pales after a song or two when one realises what a one trick pony this show is, but over the long run dazzling virtuosity can never take the place of real feeling and storytelling.
The opening cut, "Bring The World To It's(sic) Knees" is a loud, brash, bravura statement of intent with an echo of Jimi Hendrix's staccato, choppy "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" riff and his solo style. The immediate optimistic hope is that this album could be something special. The optimism soon fades. After that rousing opening there is just too much more of the same and the songs do not hold up. When I listened to the album for the first time, admittedly while doing something else, I soon found myself in a situation where the songs went by without sign that one was ending and another one was beginning. The rhythm section does not swing much, in fact the drummer plods and almost sounds like he is playing for a different band altogether. It is all very well to play a simple backing to a complex guitar part but not where the drumming is so basic and so prominent in the mix that it becomes noticeably disturbing. I'm not saying that Patlansky's drummer should play like Ginger Baker. I'm saying, if he wants to play that simply and pedestrianly, his drum parts should be buried in the mix.
Three of the songs are covers: "Bright Lights, Big City", "Lost Your Good Thing Now" and "Call Me The Breeze." I am no purist who says a cover of a well-known tune should be a perfect imitation but the first and last of these refried versions do absolutely nothing to enhance the originals and are not noteworthy at all except for the way Patlansky fucks up the groove of each.
"Bright Lights, Big City" opens promisingly with some big fat chords before the disconnect between the loping beat, charged guitar and excruciatingly mannered vocals starts grating. This version is not a slavish copy of the Jimmy Reeds style and yet does not actually repurpose a standard either. Perhaps Patlansky dearly loves this tune; perhaps it somehow fits into the theme of the album, perhaps it was just the throwaway studio jam it sounds like.
With "Bye Bye" and "Daddy's Old Gun" Patlansky strides out with some heavy riffing, fast fingered solos and big, rousing choruses. These are not great songs by any means yet they shine by comparison to the rest of the fare on offer here.
"20 Stones" was inspired by Patlansky's "lady" and is a sweet, affecting acoustic number without much tune but it is a welcome break from the loud, electric bombast that precedes it. Sadly, it fades from the memory as soon as the last note is struck. It is an arrangement and not a song.
The acoustic respite is followed by the slow blues "Lost Your Good Thing," a BB King co-composition. I actually quite like this version. Patlansky's hoarse voice does not have much gospel in it but he sounds sincere and his guitar playing is for the most part a tad more restrained and sensitive than elsewhere. Even the plodding rhythm section makes sense in the context. Ultimately there is just a lack of genuine emotion in the voice and, now that I think about it, this is probably the greatest weakness in Dan Patlansky's performances on record. The lyrics speak of emotional pain and trauma that the timbre of the voice cannot emulate or portray.
"Slap In The Face" is a band instrumental, possibly so named because of the "slap" style of bass playing that forms the rhythmic bedrock of the number, which is as forgettable as "20 Stones" and less interesting except as a master class in guitar technique. I would imagine that the arrangement is carefully worked out and the parts assiduously practiced and I ask myself: why?
"Call Me The Breeze" is so excruciatingly bad it must be a studio jam outtake. Why on earth would Patlansky choose to release this atrocity? It's all very well putting your own spin on a classic if you can improve on the original. If you do not have the nous or actual inventiveness to do so, and are above doing a note for note cover version, just leave it the hell alone. The lazy, sexy groove of the original is glaringly absent and the sly braggadocio of Cale's version is replaced by a very young guy's impatience. This track just plain sucks.
Penultimate track "Too Late To Cry" is possibly the best track on the album with a fast punchy riff, really strong chorus and some fierce soloing that melds Hendrix and Gallagher to good effect. If the album had ended with this tune, it would have been topped and tailed by two very strong performances. As it is, Patlansky chooses to close with yet another pointless instrumental called "Cross Country Limping" and blows the good work of the previous track. There is riffing, jazzy rhythm and soloing, and more riffing and more soloing that this time fuses Vaughan and Hendrix before just kinda folding. Again, probably a masterful arrangement and yet also a blandly efficient performance that is just filler.
In my assessment there is half an album of worthy tracks here. Dan Patlansky can play like a virtuoso. He sings his own songs with more commitment than he brings to the blues standards he records. He likes putting together intricate instrumentals with no emotional core. His songs are serviceable but he has not yet written a standard or even just a memorable song.
Dan Patlansky bestrides the SA blues scene like a colossus purely for reason of his amazing talent for playing the guitar well and his work ethic. He is universally praised and nobody looks beyond the empty sound and fury of his technical ability. Patlansky works very hard and must be commended for his success as a journeyman who will always dazzle the audience at his gigs by playing loud, fast and at length. That is only half the story, though. The technical excellence means that Dan Patlansky is a great craftsman. If he wants to be remembered as a great artist as well, he will have to learn to write and perform tunes with hooks and some emotional depth that will stick in the mind and make you want to come back for more. At this time Patlansky is a very, very long way away from that status.