The occasion is Big Sandy's (born Robert Williams) 25th year reveling in retro Americana. He started in 1988 working in a trio format, but quickly added instruments to make his revitalized Western swing even more authentic. Over the decades, his vision has expanded considerably to encompass everything from rockabilly to honky-tonk and '60s doowop. Initial discs on tiny West Coast indie imprints such as Jeems and Dionysus led to a productive relationship with the Hightone label where he and his Fly-Rite Boys released six albums from 1994 to 2000. A shift to Yep Roc in 2003 yielded two more, but the appropriately named What a Dream It's Been is his first since 2006.
Instead of choosing his most popular material from the past quarter century, Sandy dug deep for originals that he felt needed rearranging, stripping them down to sparse acoustic instruments. That puts the focus on his sweet, smooth, immediately recognizable vocals and provides a chance to radically alter the musical approach, occasionally shifting into genres such as ska and Jamaican rocksteady far removed from his American roots. Fans might find themselves checking the sleeve when they push play and hear the opening "Baby Baby Me," a nugget from Sandy's lone 1998 solo album, performed in a style more like early Wailers than anything from Bob Wills. He excels at it all, shifting into swing jazz on the closing title track where he duets with singer Grey DeLisle, singing with only acoustic guitar accompaniment and borrowing vocal inflections from Elvis on "(You Mean) Too Much to Me." He goes south of the border Mexicali on the emotional murder ballad "Nothing to Lose," told from an abused woman's view.
Although some might miss the caffeinated reverbed guitar so prominent on many of his recordings, hearing Sandy's voice with only walking stand-up bass accompaniment on "Don't Desert Me" spotlights the song's melancholy melody and his lovely Rick Nelson inspired singing. Even long time followers will be hard pressed to recognize most of these hidden gems such as the Buddy Holly rocking of "Missouri Gal," a cut nearly lost to the ages on 1992's obscure Fly Right With... And since only one tune appears on Hightone's 2011 Best Of, this will feel to most listeners like fresh Big Sandy music and a terrific addition to superb catalog that already has few low points.
Nothing about these frisky performances is rushed, phoned-in, or recorded as a quickie cash-grab to satiate a devoted cult worldwide audience gained predominantly through tireless touring. The only disappointment of this 40 minute traipse to Sandy's back pages is that it's over too soon. But by the sound of it, he has another good 25 years - or more - left in him.
4 out of 5 stars
Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys play the Earl tonight (Fri., Sept. 20) with Caroline & the Ramblers. $12-$15. 9 p.m. 488 Flat Shoals Ave.
ooooohhhh, I'm so excited!! I can't wait to see them together!
come on man you know you got a bromance. you probably still rock that OutKast…
Yes, 14 is the correct answer. I'll pass your info along to the group's manager,…
That was January of 2007, and they are 21 now, so I'm guessing 14?