CD Review – Sterling Koch “Slide Ruler”
Even if the playing on Sterling Koch’s Slide Ruler CD wasn’t so good, the artist’s oddball selection of some powerful cover tunes is a welcome surprise. For example, the last time we heard steel guitar duo Santo and Johnny Farina’s mesmerizing instrumental lap slide/Gibson 6-string “Sleepwalk,” was probably around 1959. Good news: On track 5, Koch, on MSA Superslide lap steel guitar, with help from former Doobie Brothers drummer Chet McCracken, renders an even more hypnotic version than the original.
If that weren’t enough, the track before “Sleepwalk” is “Driving Wheel,” a 1950s Junior Parker recording of a Roosevelt Sykes composition that jettisoned Parker’s brief career beyond even “Mystery Train.” Nobody should cover a quirky R&B icon like Junior, IMO, but Koch’s arrangement, fuzzy lap slide effects and vocals, plus McCracken’s dynamic rhythm add a juiced-up “now” feel to an already fine tune.
The band’s cover of Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble” begins more on the beat than the other covers, but by the time Koch takes the song home, it’s all his. John Lee Hooker’s “Dimples” feels hotter here than on the original.
But it’s a real coin flip over Koch’s cover of the Elmore James/Sonny Boy Williamson II “One Way Out.” This song – also recorded as “It’s a Man Down There” — is so strongly identified with the Allman Brothers that it’s like covering “Hey Jude.” While strong and even insistent, who can beat Dickey Betts’s edgy boogie line and Gregg’s panicky vocals on the Allman version?
Three songs on this CD are Koch compositions, including the fine title track/disk opener. The tune is an insistent lap-slide meditation on the blues, opening like a brooding Ry Cooder circa “Paris, Texas,” then steadily morphs into a frenzied not-quite-but-almost-shredding reminiscent of sacred steel gospel bands like the Campbell Brothers or Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
Koch really is a very appealing lap-slide player. By the time the band is ready for last call on track 12, Koch’s slow blues, “The Sun Will Shine,” becomes a fitting coda to an excellent evening’s worth of masterful blues playing of some really fine tunes. Kudos to Koch’s wife, Mary, for helping with song selection and sequencing, as reported in a Pennsylvania daily newspaper.
Look for Koch’s new CD, Let It Slide, which promises more superb lap-steel surprises.