It is kind of ironic that I listened to K.02 Sessions, the brand new release by the John Frick Band, for the first time on the night that B B King died. I’m not going to make the claim that a torch has been passed on from Riley to John yet I believe that John Frick represents not only a future of blues in the tradition of the late B B but also the type of innovation that King himself brought to blues when he started out.
John Frick is no novice to the blues and has been plying his trade for about 25, or more, years now. Over the two recent albums, from Urban Crossroads (2014) to K.02 Sessions (2015), John Frick is demonstrating to us that he is a musician maturing and even peaking as songwriter and instrumentalist. The fact that you might be a technically adept guitar player does not make you a good songwriter and ultimately one does not want to listen to just fleet fingered solos. If the songs are not memorable the experience of listening to an album becomes quite wearying if each song is no more than the empty vessel for a sequence of glib guitar solos.
As was the case with Urban Crossroads, the immediate impression is that Mr Frick is a really good, interesting and intriguing musician. He has the blue tropes down cold but the intricate and often unpredictable arrangements and quirky licks that are generously distributed over the length of the album are proof that John Frick is not merely a bloke who can replicate conventional blues licks very well but is a musician deserving of close attention.
The second thing is the quality of the songwriting itself, with actual hooks that make the songs stick in the mind. The hard riffing horn arrangements add that cool element of classic Stax soul–blues.
The two tunes that are the immediate standouts from just that first listen are second track “Frankie” a tribute to the late Frank Frost, original drummer of the Blues Broers and father of master guitarist Albert Frost, and a narration of the history of the Blues Broers, and the last track “March for Peace,” which (to be honest) is a surprisingly low key and cliché-free plea for, well, peace. In the former track John Frick seems almost preternaturally delighted in his own delight in singing this exultant paean, with strong rockabilly echoes, and in the latter he has a more gentle, thoughtful tone and words of hope backed by an old timey string band supported by second line horns. These two tracks are head and shoulders above the rest because they are so individual and so viscerally engaging.
Having said that, there is not a single bad track on this album and each tune has something catchy to offer, such as the way the riffing horn, stinging lead guitar, wailing blues harp and tough rhythm section on opening cut “Bank Robber” set out the stall for the wares to follow; the opening riff and amazing tune of “I Just Can’t Go On” (K.02 Sessions’ equivalent of the indelible “The Same Way Too” from Urban Crossroads); the soul pop insouciance, powered by Tom Moerenhout’s horn and organ, of the chorus of “Inside of Me”; the cool jazz swing of “Got Me Going”; the guitar riff, horns (again) and stone groove of “Thrill Seeker”; the slow blues bravura of “Storm Rolling In” (which seems meant to be the centre piece of the album both in its positioning in the set and in the emotional impact); the ‘Booker T & The MGs fronted by Elmore James’ locomotion of “Ride That Lonesome Train”; the delicious interplay between the almost heavy guitar riff, keyboards, the horns and the backing vocals of “Superficial Love” (yet another smart soul-pop groove); the slide guitar filigrees of “Get Up And Go There”; the delicate yet driving piano and blues harp of “Down In Mexico”; the Stax soul power of “Go, Baby, Go” (probably the weakest track on the album because it has the feel of a jam rather than as a proper song, with only the punchy performance to carry it); and, finally, the New Orleans-influenced string band sound of “March for Peace” with the horns playing a swinging counterpoint against Dobro bottleneck.
And I’m just mentioning some highlights. As I’ve said, each track has plenty more to offer. The band is on top of its game, with particular emphasis on Tom Moerenhout, Leo Birza and old comrade-in-arms Rob Nagel as the soloists alongside John Frick himself. There is a hard edged, whip smart toughness on display that can only be achieved by a group of musicians that play well together, have years of experience and the chops to show for it and are not afraid to just play the damn blues without restrictions. The rhythm section is so on point it is a subtle and sassy sum of its parts. The lyrics are good and John Frick sings unrestrainedly, more so than on the previous album, as if he has finally discovered his voice and is letting it speak, so to speak, for itself.
I am really enthralled by this album of modern blues with plenty of gutsy innovation and yet with deep roots in various genres I love. It’s an album to listen to with wonderment, admiration and joy. It’s an album that proves that blues can bring a smile to one’s face from the sheer thrill of being a spectator to masters of the form doing what they do extremely well.
Yeah, I kinda like this record.