This is tough but first, let me get to the pertinent points. The 11-cut Heart of Fire (Ruf Records/Drops Feb 26th) is worth a listen. Ally Venable is indeed a good guitarist, blues interpreter & performer. Acclaimed as a musician & should be. As a modern-day blues performer, she has social significance, enthusiasm & is contemporary.
The blues have gotten far from what they symbolized in the 1900s. It’s happened to country music as well. Blues has a formula, subject range, attitude. Few of today’s blues musicians ever lived the blues. This is why they are interpreters. Blues require an interpretation of feelings, state an issue that characterizes the blues. Ally has this…sometimes.
Many current practitioners of the blues inject ingredients from rock music. Borrow flash, pyrotechnics at the expense of feelings, emotions, that are conceded for showmanship. This leads to a loss of soul. Ally has blues juice. Restrained. Her talent is acute but the production polish adds too much veneer. Her guitar sustains & she’s dynamic (“Played the Game”), but while the work is technically good it struggles to translate. It short circuits soon after.
While sufficiently accomplished as a performer/musician she’s compromised as a more authentic blues interpreter. The blues is evident; the bluesy quality is not.
The ethos professes vocal prowess (Ally has it but not as instinctive & inherited as Karen Lawrence – Blue by Nature who has more growl & desperation, angst in a blues lyric like Janis Joplin/Bessie Smith). Instrumental virtuosity (in abundance but produced antiseptically). The performances embody good sound, a well-focused aesthetic, but the blues ancestry is embellished beyond its true roots. Blues is not a pretty genre. Traditional blues has been washed out of the fabric for a tinge of showboating. Maybe an all-analog studio or older microphone would offer a more proper warm/sinister ambiance.
“Hateful Blues,” is quite good. Needs dirtying up musically.
“Road to Nowhere,” (Devon Allman/lead guitar) is essentially pop-blues. Weighed down by cliches. However, the “road to nowhere” premise is great. It needs harder descriptive bluesy lyrical detail. Why is it a road to nowhere? Alcohol? Drugs? Conniving women? Abusive men? Blues tell stories. This one doesn’t. Ally’s voice should duet with the lead guitar licks the way B.B. King often did.
Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” is musically tight but the groove is contrived. It’s about being “used up” & that’s not conveyed accurately vocally. Too upbeat. Nice vocal power but no vulnerability. A lack of intonation, phrasing, & tonality. She’s said to be “the future of blues & the crossover music of American roots-rock.” That’s a tall order for a young guitarist. Ask Bonnie Raitt.
The impressive instrumental “Tribute to SRV” is exceptional, mindful & fluid as Peter Green’s “Albatross” with Fleetwood Mac. Finally, there are moments worth hearing. Ally has validity.
Ally (lead/rhythm guitar/vocals), Elijah Owings (drums), Bobby Wallace (bass), Rick Steff/Pat Fusco (keys), Jana Misener (cello), Cody Dickinson (drums), Landon Moore (bass).
Produced by Jim Gaines. Available at https://allyvenableband.com/