Review: Elvin Bishop- Red Dog Speaks
Oftentimes a band’s signature song will be the one least characteristic of their output as a whole. Oklahoma-born guitar man Elvin Bishop certainly knows a thing or two about that. He is best known for the 1976 top 10 hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” but his roots credentials run much deeper than that admittedly great pop song would lead you to believe.
In 1959, Bishop headed to Chicago for college and instead ended up a founding member of the legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Perhaps the first blues-rock group, they came together several months before the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, their two counterparts from across the pond. Bishop stayed in the band during a string of classic records before forming the Elvin Bishop Group in 1968. The band co-headlined shows with the Allman Brothers, was often mentioned as one of the heavy-hitters of Southern rock, and, of course, had several hits in the mid-’70s.
And, presumably, Red Dog accompanied him through most of it.
You see, Red Dog is both the star and the title track’s subject matter of Elvin Bishop’s latest album Red Dog Speaks. The aforementioned title track is an ode to Bishop’s constant companion, “a Gibson stereo, E-345, cherry red, 1959.” From the outset, this track is an indication of the gritty blues and old school R&B that permeates the entire record and a perfect representation of Bishop’s hard-edged, yet fun persona. “I’ll tell you what,” Bishop says in his gruff drawl, “We’ve rolled through every city/Kicked so much butt ’til both shoes got shitty/That’s a heck of a thing to say/But I mean it in a nice way.” And eventually, yes, Bishop, with some help from his bottleneck slide, makes Red Dog speak and it produces the sort of sound only a well-weathered six-string can make.
The next track is the blues standard “Neighbor, Neighbor.” Bishop and the band, complete with a horn section, are red hot and up-and-coming blues vocalist John Nemeth pitches in on lead vocals.
This is followed by “Fat and Sassy,” a great original mid-tempo Chicago-styled R&B number. The lyrics here, dealing with overeating, doctor-ordered diets, and other things of that nature- are hilarious and Bishop’s delivery makes it even funnier. This song delivers plenty of sass and is one of the best on the album.
Up next is the great instrumental “Barbecue Boogie,” which features the band in top form. In particular, I must commend the piano work of Bob Welsh.
John Nemeth returns for a soulful cover of reggae legend Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross.” The vocals here are amazing, as is Bishop’s slide guitar work. The result sounds nothing like the original, but that is the sign of a great artist.
“Blues Cruise” is another great full-band workout recorded live on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. The lyrics are seemingly improvised and really are only used to introduce the various solos in this all-star lineup, including Nemeth on harmonica, guitarist Tommy Castro, and Louisiana legend Buckwheat Zydeco.
This is followed by a “Doo-Wop Medley” consisting of “In the Still of the Night” and “Maybe.” This medley is performed as an instrumental with Red Dog leading the band. Of course, as on all great doo-wop backing tracks, the horn section is what really shines here. Overall, this track was fun, if a little unnecessary.
Next up is the Otis Spann Chicago blues classic “Get Your Hand Out of My Pocket.” Bishop and the band are once again joined by John Nemeth and this is probably my favorite of his appearances. Not to mention Bishop’s amazing slide solo here which needs to be heard by any fan of blues guitar.
Bishop then tackles the traditional gospel tune “His Eye is On the Sparrow” as an instrumental. This works much better than the “Doo-Wop Medley,” and in fact, sounds like one of the great ’50s R&B bands led by Fats Domino or Smiley Lewis would have sounded with a guitar up front.
Then comes “Clean Livin’,” a Bishop original and the best track on the album. The tune is performed without band accompaniment and over a great shuffle riff, Bishop delivers a list of things that should have killed him, speaks of watching women pass him by, and delivers his philosophy on being old.
The album ends with “Midnight Hour Blues,” another great original performed as a soul ballad with a slight country influence. The track is slow and calm, making for a perfect closer to an excellent album.
In conclusion, Red Dog Speaks is one of the best blues albums I have heard this year. This is a snapshot of a veteran guitar player who still hasn’t lost a step almost 50 years after beginning his career and the kind of album that every aspiring musician should give a long listen to. This is authentic, raw, and gritty, just like great blues albums should be.