words from John
by John Petric
SEPTEMBER 29, 2016
Do Italian musicians feel things differently?
Only one of these questions popped into my head at a very recent Friday Woodlands Tavern happy hour when the monstrously good guitarist Rick Collura and his Blue Cats played like the muddy waters of the Mississip coursed through their veins. I mean, baby, they were up to their necks in blue electric mud, churnin' out deep-pocketed groove like tax exiles in France. Groanin' and moanin' they had me, I confess. Where did their music end and my metabolism begin? It was a delta-Chicago-Vulcan soul-mind meld of the highest order. A rarity these days, what with all the roots doctors of music leaving no inheritors of the genre behind for what reason. #^&%%' millenials.
Nevertheless, I felt like I was in the catfish's stomach by the third song.
They warmed up with an agreeable Eddie Harris soul-jazz number, the signature chords descending like an avalanche of molasses into spumes of Collura's leads front-loaded with sting. Terry Finnerman's classic-sounding '70s Afro-American electric piano riffs speaking in Herbie Hanckock tongues with plenty of rounded blue notes added a fine contrasting dimension, something the two musicians worked to their advantage virtually every song. Jazzy songs, yes, that's 25 percent of the Blue Cat menu. But served in a blue milieu, monsieur, for as Miles Davis told the world, the heart of jazz is kind of blue.
Another warmer-upper: a Santana instrumental from Moonflowers. Collura, like his old band mate Dave Workman, is a Carlos disciple when he isn't riffing dirty Chicago stockyards riffs. He capture's Santana's spirit but just as he rearranges nearly everything a bit he played that night, he solos his own very emotional style, a mixture of nearly perfect melodic execution with a firmly applied fire.
Later in the second set, on a masterful cover of Santana's 'Europa', Collura would go totally emotional. His Italian heritage intensity erupting to the surface? Wherever it came from, he howled with love and lightning. Bending even farther over into his guitar, seemingly involuntarily lifting his right leg nearly up to his picking hand, Collura enveloped the audience in the room in the large palm of his musical hand--and crushed us to death with raw emotion!
Oh, holy Lord of the Six String, did it feel good. Joe Bonamassa, eat your pasta-lovin' heart out.
Between the Santanas, there were loads of straight-up good-time blues shuffles loaded to the belt-loops with libido. The scruffy Blue Cats might not be not be the prettiest band but they sure can play some of the sexiest, tumescent and aphrodisiacal hump music one can handily hear in town. Cool cats on a hot tin roof? Yepper, great to drink to, perfect to hook up to and absolutely sexually correct musically for rollin' and tumblin' in the fine art if not the science of makin' little blue kitties.
Which brings me to their unheralded, easily overlooked and completely deserving rhythm section: the ageless York Proctor on bass and the highly underrated Andy Smith on drums. Yorky cracks me up: nobody and I mean nobody wears a Fender bass like he does. He puts it on, it could be an accordion, or a sandwich sign. Talk about unassuming. And yet he plays an underlying foundation both melodic and architecturally sound, the root notes with the perfect flourish. What more could you ask for from a bass player? The man-lad has taste. One could see him standing through an earthquake, just standing, still thumpin' away even as the dust and rubble clears.
Smith on drums--now there's a guy whose virtues go easily overlooked Because you know, he just sits there...and plays. No flash. No thunder. Just a smidgen behind the guitar in timing the way a real blues band does it (See: Stones, Rolling; grtst Keith Richards, drms Charlie Watts). Great rhythm sections are seen and felt. The Blue Cats got that in York and Smith, unlimited groove-a-bility incorporated.
Which brings me to their totality. Putting these four together, each a veteran of several decades of endless gigging, and they play with the following group of words I played with as they performed: precision, fire and loose.
Or maybe they played with a loose precise fire. Or maybe it was with a precision, feel and fire.
You get the idea. They got that blues zen of loose and tight, technically proficient but never at the price of losing the feel. A wonder of the world, that.
But let's get back to Rick Colurra, shall we?
I can't tell you how many, many times over the years I've seen him play, usually in conjunction with someone else as bandleader, say, the late, great Willie Pooch, and afterward I've berated myself with, why haven't I written more about this guy? He can play.
Then when he started going out under his own name and I watched him go from side-guy to showrunner--I liked how he did it. I liked how he cued the band, I liked how he called the song, I liked how he nodded for his guys to solo. Then he'd step back in and just let some sort of fabulous solo pour out of his Gibson cherry 'purple' guitar, or his Les Paul knock-off, or his coral-pink '53 Strat, and I'd just think, dang he comes outta his cave like a fire-breathing dragon. I know two things about Rick's playing: the man really likes his electricity; and I've never heard him suck.
I get a kick out of watching him. Nobody hunches over his guitar more. Wearing his Andy Capp cap, he practically shrinks to Danny DeVito size he gets so into his solos. I mean, Rick, baby, you hunch over any further and you're gonna be the Hunchback of Notre Dame with a guitar if you don't watch it.
But it's the emotion that sets him apart. When I was outside of Woodlands tying up my bike I could hear Rick's looming Santana-esque sustain, howling like a stuck pig-elephant, distorted by coming out of a building, out onto the street, into my ears and exciting the hell out of me. He puts so damn much mojo on his left-hand you'd think he was second in line behind Robert Johnson selling his soul for half-price down at the midnight crossroads. He's got the touch and he's a touch touched himself.
I do get a kick out of assigning Italian cultural heritage to his art of the guitar. Let's say he plays a Michelangelo sustain and Verdi's unselfconscious directness. Let's say he sculpts solos as well as emotes them. I won't go so far as to tie a monkey to his left leg with a tin cup in its hand, but maybe, just perhaps there is something to his renaissance playing that comes from the sunny peninsula.
More highlights of the night were his bluesed-out version of Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You," which just gave me chills simply writing the title, it triggering the Cats powerful rendition. The quartet gave it such a fine, lengthy reading I was shaking my head in loving disbelief. All that was missing was Joe Cocker doing his booze-drenched white soul vocals. Finnerman did the honors and took it home, anyway. I can't tell you how terrific their version was. An electric guitarist who gives props to "Nashville Skyline" as one of his all-time favorite albums? Awesome.
By the way, my analysis of the guitarists who've most influenced Collura: he's got that snub-nosed sound in the lower notes of Duane Allman (found myself wishing the Blue Cats would incorporate the Allmans' Les Brers in A Minor, which no doubt they could do); high notes, Carlos Santana; in between, Al Di Meola alternated with Albert King, and Harvey Mandel doing cameos.
Beat that, Guitar Player magazine!
The cats of Collura and the master cat himself have a pedigree of blues and soul and jazz playing of impeccable grit. With opportunities to play bluesy seem to be drying up in town, they manage to get out but a couple times a month, either at Woodlands or Natalie's Coal Fire Pizza.
Wherever he plays, our boy should have a rider in his contract calling for the marquee to say "Tonight Rick Collura, World's Most Emotional Guitarist."