Saturday, August 3, 2013

Sugar Blue – Raw Sugar Album Review


This CD review was originally published in the January 24, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Sugar Blue – Raw Sugar

Beeble Music

2 discs / 13 tracks / 119:16

If you love the harmonica, then picking up a copy of Sugar Blues’ Raw Sugar album will be a no-brainer. Sugar, originally known as James Whiting, is one of the finest players around and has the credentials to back it up. He was brought up in a musical family, was inspired by the jazz greats, and learned the harmonica by playing along with Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder songs. He has been appearing on recordings since 1975, and has played with the Rolling Stones, Prince, Bob Dylan, Willie Dixon, Frank Zappa, and too many other fine artists to list.

Sugar has released at least a dozen albums, and had his hand in a few Grammy awards over the years. Raw Sugar is a two disc live recording that includes Blue on harmonica and vocals, Rico McFarland on guitar, Damiano Della Torre on keyboards, Ilaria Lantieri Blue on bass and James Knowles on drums. This two hour collection of songs is broken up into two sets, with seven pieces written by band members as well as some neat cover tunes. Many of the songs on this compilation can be found on his earlier studio releases.

“Red Hot Mama” is the first song on disc one, and at 5 ½ minutes, it is one of the shortest tracks on Raw Sugar. This up-tempo piece kicks off their show like an old time blues review with a driving bass line, a machine-gun fast drum part and a full-blast organ. Right away you can hear that this a tight band and these guys feel the soul. Sugar Blue enters the fray with his distinctive harp sound, and we get to hear a bit of his smooth voice too. This was a great choice for starting things off!

There is an extra injection of funk as this song quickly segues into Muddy Waters’ “One More Mile” and Rico McFarland gets a chance to shine. Rico is straight out of Chicago and has played with some of the best including James Cotton and Lucky Peterson. His hot contemporary blues licks and smooth solos bring a lot to the table and are a nice counterpoint to the hopping rhythm section.

On this release there are plenty of songs over 10 minutes, as Sugar Blue lets his band mates have plenty of room to experiment, showing that he is not one to hog the spotlight. A great example of this is the band’s 14-minute version of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man,” perhaps one of the most recorded blues songs ever. They did a great job of making this song their own by giving it a faster and more modern arrangement. Della Torre had a part in this by adding a steady stream of honky-tonk piano throughout and even some subtle jazz work during a break in the action. I cannot say enough about Sugar Blues’ showmanship and harmonica skills, as he is one of the best out there and this song should be required listening for anybody that is learning to play the harp.

There is little chance that Sugar Blue would do a show without including his two most famous songs, “Another Man Done Gone” and “Miss You.” Sonny Boy Williamson recorded “Another Man Done Gone” first, but Sugar earned a Grammy for it with his fabulous performance at the Montreux Jazz Fest in the early 1980s. Of course he has played this song quite a bit since then, and it comes off perfectly on this recording. The Rolling Stones’ chart-topper “Missing You” is Sugar Blue’s most commercially successful song, and I always considered it to be Jagger/Richards’ funkiest effort -- it was certainly popular in the clubs back in the late 1970s. But Sugar’s band takes this song to a whole new level, led by Iliana’s hot bass line which is perfectly synced with Knowles’ drums, and it is most definitely one of my favorites on Raw Sugar.

Many times artists edit out their conversations with the crowd from their live albums, but Sugar Blue left many of his in, for which I am grateful. If you have not seen the man play live, these excepts give you a great insight into his personality and nature, and it is plain from these CDs that he is a humble and sweet man who loves to play out with his friends and lives to please his fans.

If you are a fan of Sugar Blue or have been lucky enough to attend one of his shows, Raw Sugar is a must-have CD. If you love blues harmonica and want to capture the energy of a great performance, you should make the effort to check this CD out; if you do you will want to get a copy for yourself!



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