Sunday, April 13, 2014

CD Review: Colin Cooper Project's From The Vaults

Until his death in 2008 from cancer, British singer and musician Colin Cooper had enjoyed a lengthy and rewarding career. Enamored of music from an early age, Cooper first taught himself harmonica before moving on to clarinet, saxophone, and guitar – multi-instrumental skills that would serve him well down the road. His first band of note was the early-1960s outfit Colin Cooper's Climax Jazz Band, but it was with the mid-60s mod band the Hipster Image, and its Alan Price-produced single "Can't Let Her Go" b/w "Make Her Mine," that Cooper got his first taste of fame.

The Climax Blues Band

In 1968, Cooper formed the Climax Chicago Blues Band with guitarists Pete Haycock and Derek Holt, the band riding the British blues wave to become one of the island's top live draws. They released their self-titled debut in 1969 to critical acclaim, following it up quickly with Plays On later that year, their sophomore effort edging into the Billboard Top 200 albums chart in the United States. Somewhere along the line they dropped the "Chicago" from their name (the American band of that name ridiculously claiming that fans would confuse the bands), and throughout the 1970s, the Climax Blues Band would release a slate of well-regarded albums that included 1972's Rich Man, the following year's FM Live, and 1974's Sense of Direction, which would deliver the band's first Top 40 charting U.S. disc.

As the band strayed from its British blues roots towards a more rock 'n' roll oriented musical direction, Cooper's deep vocals were at the forefront of albums like 1976's Gold Plated, which scored a number three hit with "Couldn't Get It Right," which propelled the album to number 27 on the Billboard Top 200 charts, destined to become the Climax Blues Band's best-selling collection. Throughout the remainder of the decade, the band would hover in the upper reaches of the album charts with works like 1978's Shine On and 1980's Flying The Flag. Although they'd never again match the success of Gold Plated, the band carried on throughout the 1980s and '90s, even after Haycock and Holt left to forge their own various solo successes, with Cooper remaining on the microphone.

Colin Cooper Project's From The Vaults

The blues remained Cooper's first love, and he would push the band back towards its blues roots throughout the late 1980s and well into the new millennium, releasing albums like 1994's Blues From The Attic and 2003's Big Blues (The Songs of Willie Dixon) to great response. During this same period, Cooper showed his loyalty to the blues by recording a number of blues and roots-rock covers in his home studio, songs that he'd crafted to perfection with impromptu performances on his steel Dobro guitar at local pubs. Although they were never performed with commercial release in mind, the best of these homespun demos have been collected under the Colin Cooper Project banner and recently released on CD as From The Vaults.

From The Vaults kicks off with Taj Mahal's "Cake Walk Into Town," the song provided a spry, up-tempo performance, Cooper's jaunty vocals approximating Mahal's original funky drawl, his lively guitar-picking providing a sparse, but engaging framework for the song. Cooper's deep voice is perfectly suited to the material, and late-period Climax Blues Band guitarist Lester Hunt adds some elegant electric guitar as a fine counterpoint to Cooper's acoustic, Piedmont blues-flavored Dobro. A reading of Robert Johnson's "Rambling On My Mind" is closer in spirit to Eric Clapton's laidback cover than to the blues legend's Delta-dirty original, an upbeat arrangement replete with finger-picked strings and a walking rhythm capturing the restless spirit of Johnson's lyrical intent nonetheless.

Visiting The Tony Joe White Songbook

Cooper tackles three separate Tony Joe White songs, beginning with "Sidewalk Hobo." The guitarist does an admirable job of capturing the swamp-blues malevolence that lies quietly at the root of White's unique brand of Americana. Cooper's warm vocals lack White's native twang, but he makes up for it with a sonorous baritone and clever fretwork which tells its own story with emotional strength and imagination. Cooper's guitar playing is magnificent here, a feat which parallels his work on White's "Boeuf River Road." Jazzier in nature than its predecessor, Cooper's breathless vocals remind of J.J. Cale, as does his slippery guitar playing, the two intertwining to create a simply mesmerizing vibe.

Cooper's final foray into the Tony Joe songbook, "The Family," is more roots-oriented, adding a Marshall Tucker Band feel to the song. It's probably the weakest of the three performances, Cooper's vocals more spoken than sung, but that's a minor quibble, indeed…the song provides a fine example of Cooper's acoustic guitarplay as he plays off Hunt's stunning electric fretwork. Cooper's knowledge of the Piedmont blues form is put on display with his cover of the Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry gem "Livin' With The Blues." Cooper's warm vocals are matched with an accomplished bit of Dobro-pickin' that would have done ol' Brownie proud, Cooper's lovely acoustic tones matched, seemingly, in the mix by Hunt's electric doppelganger.

Key To The Highway

His mastery of Piedmont blues established, Cooper acquits himself nicely on a reading of John Lee Hooker's "One Roomed Country Shack." Actually written by jump blues pianist Mercy Dee Walton and recorded by everybody from Buddy Guy to Al Kooper and Shuggie Otis for the Kooper Session album, here it's a slow-tempo blues dirge with Cooper's breathless guitar substituted for Walton's emotional piano playing. Cooper perfectly captures the original song's vibe, however – a smoky jazz feel combined with heartbreak vocals and a smothering ambiance.

Cooper lets his harmonica fly on Tampa Red's classic "It Hurts Me Too," layering in lonesome, wailing harp notes beneath the shuffling, optimistic guitar line. Tampa Red was an influential acoustic wizard, but Cooper holds his own with the song's intricate, upbeat rhythms and overall atmosphere. Again taking his cue from Mr. Clapton, Cooper's cover of Big Bill Broonzy's "Key To The Highway" is delivered closer to the original than to Clapton's Derek & the Dominos version, his chiming fretwork and a ramblin' delivery capturing Broonzy's reckless spirit like nobody since Muddy Waters. Willie Nelson's "I Didn't Sleep A Wink Last Night" might seem like an odd choice, but Cooper discovers the restless blues at the heart of the song, peppering the country legend's lyrics with minimal, jazz-flecked fretwork to deliver an euphoric, early-morning setting for the performance.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

From The Vaults closes out with Cooper's take on Chicago bluesman Eddie Boyd's 1953 classic "Twenty Four Hours," a perfect after-hours bookend to the preceding Willie Nelson tune. Establishing a tearful feel from the beginning, Cooper's mournful guitarplay supports and amplifies the song's tale of romance gone wrong. Whereas Cooper voice has always been his calling card, his guitar playing and natural feel for the material display the artist's affection for the blues and talents far beyond his reputation.

Colin Cooper had the misfortune, perhaps, of being a good guitarist in a band that featured two great, underrated instrumentalists in Haycock and Holt, but From The Vaults shows that he clearly could hold his own. Although Cooper's performances on From The Vaults were clearly recorded for his personal entertainment, it's good that they've been released for his longtime fans to enjoy. If you're a fan of the Climax Blues Band, especially the outfit's earlier, blues-tinged material, you'll find a lot to like in Cooper performances. If you're a blues fan with nothing but a passing knowledge of Cooper and the CCB, you should give From The Vaults a listen…the collection definitely frames Cooper's talents in a different light as well as displaying his love and deep knowledge of the blues overall.

(Click here to buy the Colin Cooper Project's From The Vaults from


Climax Blues Band - "Couldn't Get It Right"

Climax Blues Band - "Going To New York"