Words About Music And Other Obsessions

The Central New York-based guitarist Ron Spencer has been a favorite of mine since I heard his first solo recording more than 15 years ago. While his band has undergone several changes in evolving to its current lineup (Spencer, singer Mark Gibson, bassist Jay Gould, and drummer Ross Moe), his track record of quiet excellence remains unbroken. His latest album, Soul Reason, is an outstanding set of blues and soul.

An excellent singer, Gibson has a hearty, sometimes bemused manner that conveys the low-key humor underlying much of the material. The group’s chief writer, he penned four songs: “Ain’t Got Nothin’,” a series of hard luck vignettes delivered over a rockabilly-inflected beat, with a guitar break straight out of the Carl Perkins stylebook; “Move Back To Missouri,” a rewiring of “Gonna Send You Back To Georgia” that reflects Hound Dog Taylor’s slide guitar boogie version more than the R&B takes by James Carr or Timmy Shaw, and spotlights a wonderful piano solo by guest Mark Nanni; and the beautifully sung swamp pop confection “You Ain’t Gone,” notable also for Spencer’s charmingly primitive, Guitar Slim-style lead guitar and the band’s rhythmic accents at the song’s crescendo. A Chicago shuffle with the sophistication of some of Jimmy Rogers’s ‘50s sides, “If That’s Love” features both fine piano from Nanni and Spencer’s artful guitar work, which combines the styles of Robert Lockwood and Bill Jennings.

Spencer and Gibson share credit for the bulk of the songs, including a pair of sweet soul tunes that are genre-correct but not at all derivative. “Nothin’ Like You” incorporates a stuttering rhythm, a melodic, crisply played guitar break, inspired tenor saxophone by Dan Eaton, and a superb Gibson vocal. The title track builds in intensity, adding organ to guitar over a slyly elastic rhythm before breaking out into sunny choruses.  Their straightforward blues numbers are tough to beat. A tale of a well-intentioned gin-drinking woman who seems to be fighting a losing battle, the infectious “Workin’ On Her Sins” opens the disc, swinging hard in the style of B.B. King’s Blues is King-era prime. Spencer’s lead guitar is right on target. “Puzzlement,” a hearty roadhouse blues, sounds like Jimmie Vaughan tackling Charlie Rich’s “Mohair Sam”–a hip concept, perfectly executed. “Here I Am Again” combines elements from across genres: greasy slide guitar; a lowdown groove reminiscent of Frankie Lee Sims; and traces of the Temptations’ soul classic “Shaky Ground.”

The rhythm section jumps “Lookin’ For A Woman,” a fast swing, just right. Spencer shows off a keen sense of humor, his way with a phrase, and a sophisticated harmonic approach. “Six Of One” is paced by throbbing electric bass, floor toms and maracas, and pushed by overdriven guitars. Credited to the entire band, it is an attention-getting exercise in dynamics, a moody, minor key stomp that works its way through a breakdown section and into a fast boogie. It’s great stuff, and emblematic of the Ron Spencer Band’s deep understanding of roots music. Their inspired playing and writing shows that classic forms, in the right hands, continue to hold both plenty of life and opportunities for originality. Anyone with an interest in real blues music ought deeply to enjoy Soul Reason.

TOM HYSLOP

Blueswax

BLUESWAX

Buy a Ticket, It’s a Rockin’ Ride, (05/06/10)

The Ron Spencer Band has had its share of success winning two Sammy Awards (Syracuse Music Awards) and getting a Handy Award nomination in 2003 for their recording with Jimmy Cavallo. This version of the Ron Spencer Band is a four-piece unit that gets it! They are veterans of the New York music scene that have plenty of backing credentials. They have a loose, simple, groove-oriented sound that goes back to the Chess recording school: mellow down easy.

They're not a Chicago Blues band rip off. They play a contemporary style that lends itself perfectly for a possible guitar slinger or harmonica wizard to take the front and be in the spotlight. Instead these guys spend their time wisely and let the music breath. This album has been through the spring cleaning process and leaves no clutter behind.

Listening to the songwriting would bring a warm smile to the face of Willie Dixon. It's not complicated by any means, but it is effective. Some Blues writers let the music say more than the actual words; that is the case here. Ron Spencer focuses on the song itself. The solos on the album have a warm, old, hollow body guitar tone. The beauty of the guitar solos on the album is that they are placed in just the right spots and never get in the way or even moved slightly out of place. Very tasteful.

Okay, so that was all about Ron Spencer's guitar work. I have to mention the vocal cords God gave Mark Gibson. His voice gets large like Brian Templeton and gets gritty and dirty like the Wolf. Gibson's voice would fit in comfortably in a Texas roadhouse alongside Delbert McClinton.

"20 Second Boogie Woogie" gets your stomach ready in anticipation as this roller coaster is just getting started. Dan "Cato" Eaton really bounces on the keys, pushing this car ahead. Some Mike Morgan/Anson Funderburgh sound jumps out on "That Door." Mark Nanni's grinding organ on "What I Wouldn't Do" is the hill on the roller coaster as you are going up waiting for the tummy turning drop off. 'Oh, Baby Doll' is a little rockabilly, a little Chubby Checker. Try and listen without twistin'! The closing track "Into the Fire" is a ZZ Top-toned bearded lady. Hell, throw Hound Dog Taylor into an Allman Brothers recording and see what you get. It might be "Into the Fire."

When you find some BBQ ribs cooked with time, you enjoy them more than that Lloyds freeze dried crap. There is a secret to letting the seasoning set in. Ron Spencer has done just that. This is a tasty album that should not fly under anyone's radar. Roller Coaster Blues can hang with the toughest Blues albums coming out today. In some instances this album holds many of the intangibles that we can discuss until boredom or just put the album in, shut up and listen. I'll do the latter.

Kyle M. Palarino is a contributing editor to

BluesWax.Kyle can be reached at www.blueswax@visnat.com

Blues Review

The Ron Spencer Band hasn't missed a beat in the five years since its last CD. The upstate NY guitarist and bandleader has recuited an excellent singer and composer in Mark Gibson; they deliver a baker's dozen of new tunes on Roller Coaster Blues, each one a winner. From "That Door," which channels the spirit of one of B.B. King's tough '50s shuffles to the rockabilly-inflected "Brand New Way Of Hurtin'', from the smoky, Hammond shuffle "What I Wouldn't Do" through the upbeat soul of"Such A Fool", it's a road trip througfh classic roots styles. The fine-tuned rhythm section of Jay Gould (bass) and Ross Moe (drums) provides downright tight settings fro Spencer's snappy guitar work. Highly recommended.

Syracuse New Times

Spencer’s Gifts
 

Guitar guru Ron Spencer and his band highlight this weekend’s Blues Fest

A light switch seemed to flip inside of blues guitarist Ron Spencer when he first made his way into an open jam session at Squires East, then a Westcott Street hangout near Syracuse University, in the late 1970s. With bluesheads like Tom Townsley and KJ James lighting up the joint with their music, it’s no wonder that Spencer got hooked.

 

“That first open blues jam was the most significant moment as far as my entrance into playing in a band,” Spencer reflects. “Once I had done that and found the thrill of having a band behind me, I just started going to open blues jams and just kept at it.”

Spencer, now 60, started playing with the well-known James and formed Dr. Blue and the Nite Crew in the early 1980s. He stuck with the group for about three years, although he played with James and remained close friends with him for many more. Spencer also had stints with Tom Townsley and the Backsliders; local harp player and vocalist Pete McMahon; the bluesbelting Kim Lembo of Blue Wave Records (run by Spencer’s brother Greg), as they both toured Canada; Jumpin’ Joe Whiting’s Rockin’ Rhythm Review; and Spencer Montague with the Velcros.

 

He formed Ron Spencer and the Nite Crew in the late 1980s, and after that group had run its course, Spencer started Jumpstart, a sevenpiece big band that included the big voice of Dugan Henhawk. After about five years, Spencer’s band took another giant step when they hooked up with Jimmy Cavallo, the legendary Syracuse-bred sax musician, still best known for his propulsive performance with his band The House Rockers for the title song of the 1956 drive-in cheapie Rock, Rock, Rock! That collaboration led to performances in England at the Rhythm Riot Festival in 2002, the Hemsby Rock’n’Roll Weekend in 2004 and the Americana Festival in 2005 as well as that year’s Rockin’ 50s Fest in Wisconsin, the largest rockabilly event in the world.

The group was also nominated for the W.C. Handy Blues Award in 2003 and won two Syracuse Area Music Awards (Sammys) in 2006 and 2007, both for Best Blues Recording, for the Blue Wave albums Livin’ Low and You’d Better Believe It!.

It was a massively successful collaboration, but one that broke apart in 2005 when Henhawk relocated to Las Vegas. Spencer needed a new frontman, but only thought he was getting a temporary replacement in singer Mark Gibson, who promised to do three fill-in gigs and rehearsed with the group for about six months. But when the gigs started multiplying, Gibson ended up sticking around full time for the last seven years and counting.


“We have a band that’s been relatively stable for a long time, which is rare these days.And Gibson is probably one of the best frontmen, bar none, in the area.


The four-piece also boasts drummer Ross Moe, a 12-year veteran, and Jay Gould, who also plays with the Fabulous Ripcords, on bass and vocals for the last 10 years. And while they’re known as the Ron Spencer Band, the emphasis is still very much a group effort.

“We have a band that’s been relatively stable for a long time, which is rare these days,” Spencer says. “And Gibson is probably one of the best frontmen, bar none, in the area. I’ve worked with ‘em all: Isreal Hagan, Joe Whiting, Dugan Henhawk, Jimmy Cavallo—who is one of the best entertainers there is, period—and Mark. I put them in the same company. He keeps people’s attention when he hits the stage. His enthusiasm is infectious. You see him and you see someone who really enjoys what they’re doing.”

The group released Rollercoaster Blues (Blue Wave) in 2009, an album of all-original material, and went on to win Blues Revue Magazine’s Sponsor the Band Competition in 2011.

They’re currently working on a new all-original album due this fall, but first they have to sandwich a slew of shows this weekend: four gigs in three days in two different countries.

“We’re doing the Quebec City Summer Music Festival on Thursday, July 12, heading back Friday, July 13, playing Shifty’s (1401 Burnet Ave.) that night and then playing our set at the Blues Festival on Saturday afternoon (3:15 p.m.),” he explains. “Then I’m playing that night with Bernie Clark {at the Westcott Theater, 524 Westcott St., at 8:45 p.m.}. I’m pretty well psyched!” Spencer is also happy that his late pal KJ James, the immensely talented and loved local bluesman, will be honored at the festival. “Kelly James was just one of those figures on the blues scene that just seemed to always be there and always be a part of it. Wherever you went you saw his imposing figure,” Spencer says. “He was always giving great praise to the local artists and he was just one of the longest, biggest proponents of the blues scene in the area. He’s definitely sorely missed on the scene. I miss him. He always had good words to say about the local music scene and about our band, too, which I always appreciated.”

 

Although Spencer has played the New York State Blues Festival about 15 times with various bands in the past, he’s excited for this next run. “The ball is definitely rolling for us right now,” Spencer says about his band. “Some momentum is being picked up. We’re really excited that things are finally catching up. It’s all looking good for us.”

Syracuse New Times

Ron Spencer Band. Soul Reason (Real Gone Records). Although the band is named after its smoking guitarist, Ron Spencer is one of those fantastic frontmen who doesn’t hog the spotlight. The perfect vocals of bluesman Mark Gibson and the fiery keys of special guest Mark Nanni often steal the show, and Spencer shows his good taste by taking a back seat on some tunes and slaying others. “Lookin’ For A Woman” lets him shine with quick rips, “Six of One” lets him dig in, and “Move Back To Missouri” is the CD’s standout, allowing everyone to show off on the grinding rocker. “Workin’ on Her Sins” is a standard blues tune that could fit in several bands’ repertoires and “Ain’t Got Nothin’” hits an irresistible Elvis Presley-type swing. Additions from Dan “Cato” Eaton on sax and Mick Walker on guitar also help the full and textured sound of the group.

The album is made for dancing and the band—Spencer, Gibson, bassist Jay Gould and Ross Moe on drums—will prove it all night during their CD release party on Friday, Sept. 27, 9 p.m., at Shifty’s, 1401 Burnet Ave. For more, visit ronspencerband.com.

—Jessica Novak