“We are now going to play a slow, dark one- the best kind!” With that introduction, keyboardist (and longtime Boston champion of the Blues) Bruce Katz struck the heaviest held blues chord you could imagine on his Nord C-1 organ. He and his bandmates-Chris Vitarello on guitar and Ralph Rosen on drums- were then off to explore every low-down dirty feeling that comes with “Contrition,” Katz’s classic composition built around a slow blues vamp and plenty of dark organ moans.
“Contrition” was just one of many highlights in the raw and vital show Katz and his trio performed before an adoring audience on July 17th at the Regattabar in Cambridge, MA. This show was sort of a homecoming for Katz, as he has not returned to the Boston area for some time, after moving from this area to the Hudson Valley some time ago. It was fitting then, that he and his trio started the evening with his tune “Homecoming”- a big and boisterous blues bash highlighted by Katz’s greasy organ licks and deep held plunges in the lowest of registers. Katz has been a stalwart on the blues scene for many years, plying his wondrous keyboard trade for his own bands and well as for countless other fortunate partners, including Delbert McClinton, Ronnie Earl, Greg Allman and many others. (One of his soul mates, John Hammond, adds vocals to two tracks for Katz’s latest recording project, due out this November).
There can be no doubt, after hearing Katz and his band perform on this glorious evening at the Regattabar, that Katz remains a blues treasure, never failing to amaze with his soulful tone and his uncanny ability to always find a new twist on a simple shuffle; a triad of blues chords or one tumultuous note long- held into an ominous rumble. Take, for instance, the band’s intense performance of a new tune, “The Sky’s the Limit” composed by Vitarello. On this expansive tune, Katz built slowly to a volcanic crescendo on his organ by combining slow- brewing bass notes with his left hand with accelerating knots of runs in the treble – always keeping tabs on the architecture of the simple, crisp melody as he pushed the volume higher. Vitarello too was a sonic wonder here: his guitar solo was all shards of glass and sharp angles, with a great feel for stinging his notes with great clarity and definition.
Vitarello built his own castle from these sharp grains of sand, delectably swelling to a searing crescendo of stripped down heat on his Fender. His vocals were smoothly delivered, with a touch of a salacious quality perfect for this yearning and churning number. And, (speaking of churning), Rosen was a (smiling) beast on the drums, always providing a huge propulsive foundation with a particular love for hitting the center of his big cymbal to create a bold and clear bell tone underneath all of Katz and Vitarello’s rasp and sting.
An added treat to the show was when harp player Mike Costello joined his buddies on stage for a blistering version of the Box Tops classic tune, “The Letter,” in which Joe Cocker’s version (with its gutsy groove) was taken to another level of heat with Costello’s harp pumping and wailing amidst Katz’s thunderous bass foundation and boogie organ lines. There was also boogie of a different kind in Katz’s exuberant version of his tune, “Norton’s Boogie”. On this rollicking tune, Katz took to his barrelhouse piano style with all of the verve and virtuosity of a Professor Longhair salute. Katz ran up and down on his piano with sparkling rolls, trills and spills galore. Once again, he kept the melody beautifully woven within his leaping octaves and kinetic spray of notes. Appropriately, another salute was made at the close of the concert, in the band’s bright and stirring version of Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round In Circles”. Everyone took a solo on this great, pulsating number. Rosen kept the movement circular with his steadfast snare and cymbal; Vitarello lashed out with precise and crisp attack on his guitar and Katz shimmered and snaked with buoyant organ thumps.
It was also a treat to hear the sound at the Regattabar for this concert, because the Regattabar is a room with many challenges to delivering live music that is clear and dynamic. There was a fear that this power trio’s sound would overwhelm the room. Such was not the case on this evening and the sound engineer on duty should be congratulated for keeping the sound coherent so that each instrument was heard with good precision and pitch definition. Gratefully, Vitarello’s vocals were also heard distinct without being swallowed up in Katz’s and Rosen’s big resonant bass notes and huge drum kicks.
This concert at the Regattabar also brings to mind the great audiophile label, Audioquest, the label that Katz has recorded a number of his past releases on. Audioquest is one of those labels that can be relied upon for consistently excellent sound. Many Audioquest recordings are superb in capturing the dynamic range of a given performance. They also can offer a wealth of tactile information and great image dimensionality – if your system is up to the task. Katz’s releases on Audioquest, including his Crescent Crawl [Audioquest 1993], are emblematic of these qualities. You may also wish to check out the fantastic recordings on Audioquest by another Blues Master, Doug MacLeod. In particular, a reference disc always relied upon for its superb sound, (as well as for MacLeod’s magnificent artistry), is his recording Whose Truth, Whose Lies [Audioquest 2000]. Macleod’s tune, “Norfolk County Line” will have you swooning for more.
Other MacLeod recordings on Audioquest, (just as superb), are You Can’t Take My Blues [Audioquest 1996] and Come To Find [Audioquest 1994]. Macleod now records on Reference Recordings and their Fresh! label (reviews forthcoming). Look forward to Bruce Katz’s release in November; it should be a dandy!