Veterans of the blues game, Sugar Ray and The Bluetones, released their latest record, Too Far from the Bar, on September 18, 2020. The album is extra special as it’s one of the last recordings from legendary blues guitarist Little Charlie Baty, who unfortunately passed away earlier this year. In the liner notes, Charlie fondly recalls first hearing Sugar Ray and The Bluetones play at the Sleeping Lady Café in Fairfax, CA, almost 40 years ago. Sugar Ray Norcia’s “outstanding voice” and “unique harmonica style” instantly grabbed Baty’s attention. Listening to Too Far from the Bar (or any Sugar Ray release) makes it easy to see why. After meeting a few years later, Baty couldn’t wait to record an album with Norcia and his band of Blues Music Awards nominees, but his own touring and retirement got in the way. Luckily for blues fans, this project came to fruition before Charlie’s untimely death.
Produced by Roomful of Blues founder/guitarist, Duke Robillard, this impressive collaboration features nine originals and six cover songs which blend perfectly. Kicking things off is their version of “Don’t Give No More Than You Can Take,” an invigorating tune by The “5” Royales. The prudent lyrics and heartening vibe of the original are enhanced by the addition of Baty’s playful fretwork and Norcia’s soul-soothing harmonica solos. They plow down a similar path with “Too Far from the Bar,” a bouncy number with an updated “Johnny B. Goode” feel. The title track, highlighted with frenzied piano strikes by the great Anthony Geraci, portrays a thirsty Sugar Ray struggling to get the bartender’s attention. The singer continues to stretch his storytelling muscles on “The Night I Got Pulled Over,” a cautionary tale many of us can relate to about driving when you have the blues.
Hopefully, Sugar Ray eventually got his drink because he sounds like he needs it more than ever on “Too Little Too Late” and “What I Put You Through.” This is blues at its finest: moody tunes laced with regrets over a love that got away. Neil Gouvin on drums and Michael “Mudcat” Ward on acoustic bass keep the groove locked down like a fortress, while Norcia’s howling harp comes in ever so sweetly at just the right moment. They are also two of four tracks to feature the tender notes of Robillard. The Bluetones didn’t pull any punches with this lineup.
Another standout track is “Reel Burner,” an instrumental with a relentlessly dizzying swing that pushes further away from the blues and into big band territory with every thump. Equally exciting is the accelerated rhythm of Jerry McCain’s “My Next Door Neighbor.” The influence this storied blues singer/harmonica player had on Sugar Ray is apparent. The Bluetones frontman uses his energetic inflection to breathe new life into the song as if McCain were in the room giving him the thumbs up, while Baty and Geraci passionately sprinkle dashes of flavor all over the satisfyingly fresh blues entrée. The combination of these three players shines the most on Too Far from the Bar. Fans of Charlie’s work will appreciate that he injected the same enthusiasm and creativity into this record as he did with The Nightcats.
The jovial, up-tempo jams take a back seat to more relaxed, traditional blues melodies, though the songs never come off lazy or sterile. Norcia often dives deep into bare-naked contemplation, letting his introspective words provide a cathartic level of comfort and motivation. Even when the band is wrapped up tight in a blanket of gloomy blues, there’s a sense of positivity reaching out from under the covers. This ability to expertly leap between various blues styles is what makes Too Far from the Bar deserving of all the accolades it’s bound to receive. This project is one that each musician is justifiably proud of, and that sentiment is heard loud and clear in every song that they put to tape.