Rawls and the Rays prove the Blues knows No Boundaries
The first things you hear on No Boundaries are overdriven electric guitar licks, Hammond organ, thumping bass, and propulsive drums. Then Johnny Rawls starts singing, and you're really in for something good. Rawls is from Purvis, Mississippi, where he has been playing with major bluesmen since high school. He served as leader for numerous "Deep South" regional bands, making records for various labels along the way. Rawls discovered the Rays and produced their award-winning CD Texas Justice in 1999. A four-time nominee for W. C. Handy Male Soul Vocalist Award, Rawls is famous for that elusive 1960's Stax soul sound. His collaboration with the Rays on No Boundaries is thus a risky but successful stylistic departure.
The aptly titled No Boundaries is a diverse soundscape featuring soul, blues, Gospel, funk, and roots rock. Without a doubt, Rawls has bashed through musical and racial boundaries to enlist some of the best sounding musicians of his career. The Rays are a hard-working and hard-swinging backing band fully in control of their audience. Alas, if only the songs were so strong. The structures are predictable (even for blues), and the lyrics even more so. Bassist and songwriter Bob Trenchard forms a few solid ideas, and everyone does a good sales job, but clichés and religious platitudes abound. Thankfully, the sincerity of Rawls' singing pulls you through, reasserting an authenticity far surpassing "bigger" R&B artists. And let us not forget--in the blues, or Southern-Gospel preaching for that matter--sophisticated wordplay is seldom needed to get the point across.
Songwriting aside, No Boundaries erupts from your speakers like a crackling fireball. Co-producers Johnny Rawls and Steve Lott recorded in Texas and mixed at Ardent Studio in Memphis. Ardent, like Muscle Shoals before it, is well-known for their signature Southern swamp production: clear guitars and vintage keys, gated drums, "Tower of Power" style horn stabs, soulful background vocals, short but thick reverberation, and an unmistakable rollicking beat. It's all here, folks, and the water's fine! Long-time Rawls and Rays fans will cherish this collaboration, and many new fans are sure to be made.
-David Seymour is a freelance jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.