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Album Review

JOHN FRIES
U.S. 50

In my mind, you could hardly start out an album better than with a mixture of John Dummer and Long John Baldry and that is exactly what John Fries does on his new album, U.S. 50. From the wail of the voice to the sound of the guitars, I am transported to the early seventies and that semi-blues feel which I now realize is more R&B than blues, this brand of R&B having that more expansive rock and soul feel to it. When the slide guitar kicks in, in fact, I hear Dummer's Oobleedooblee Jubilee album, an album I coveted over the years until it went on its own quest to someone who coveted it even more. But here it is, back in the form of Another Love, a solid kickoff and a pleasure to hear. Unfortunately, that is the extent of that specific sound and feel, but it is both a welcome start and precursor to some damn fine soul-infused music, each song it seems laying out its own territory.

The jump from Anither Love to Defeat was unexpected, leaning more toward early Hall & Oates than anything I can think of, a light funky tune with a Boz Scaggs vibe. Not my favorite kind of music but I sure sold enough of it back in the late-seventies, and the guitar is impressive. Speaking of guitar, Fries cranks it up a little on My Dearest, a slow dangling participle of late night blues with understated verse and cranked up chorus. Fries even pulls out a little bit of Harvey Mandel in the solo before the song heads into overdub hell at the end, the guitar tracks fighting one another rather than working together, but it all comes out okay.

In fact, it heads into my favorite track on the album, We Can Lie, a slow number dipped in Stax juice, the horns straight out of Memphis or Muscle Shoals and that unique R&B mix I love so much. Beautifully recorded.

I don't know how many of you caught Grayson Hugh during his short stint on the charts back in the late-eighties, but Technicolor You is cut from the same cloth, the electric piano and organ laying bedrock for Fries' funky soul vocals (think white boy Staple Singers), that laid back but crisp guitar sound always in the background until it takes over. The song is a testament to the Hammond organ's worth as accompaniment. Fries pulls out the stops on his guitar on Tomorrow before turning Americana on the capper and title track, U.S. 50, Nancy Parent's pedal steel moaning and sounding a bit like organ (and yes, I know there is an organ there too) while Fries and Parent duel vocally. Perfect ending for a solid effort.

This is also an album the techies don't want to miss. On his one-sheet (the promotional blurb send out with review copies), Fries goes out of his way to list the gear (supposedly) used in the recording. I put parentheses around “supposedly” because it just says “Gear” and does not refer to just this recording. Still, you have to be impressed when anyone loves their setup so much that he feels compelled to share things like “Matching Bandmaster Cabs (meaning cabinets, I believe), both loaded with EV (Electro-Voice) speakers--- 2 12l's and 2 15l's (the 15 cab was converted).” It wouldn't mean much to the casual listener, but to the musician it is as pretty a picture as could be painted. And it says, hey man, this cat knows his stuff. At least, a little. I think in the case of John Fries, it is a little more than that.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.


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