The Mellow Fellows

Alligator AL-4793

Ever since Larry “Big Twist” Nolan brought his tough-sounding blues/R & B aggregation the Mellow Fellows to Chicago from the Carbondale area in the late 1970s, listeners have both praised and criticized the band for the same thing–their well-oiled predictability. For generations of former Southern Illinois University students who’d partied to the band in their college years, that predictability was a plus. Twist and the Fellows were a kind of tribal drum, a common bond among their fans, who kept coming back not just to see them but to renew old friendships and relive old times.

When the Fellows’ success in the early 80s propelled them onto the road, they found themselves on a club circuit that again consisted largely of college towns. The audience on that circuit is strangely conservative; though they may occasionally embrace sounds that are new to them (Li’l Ed) or follow artists who explore and grow over time (Lonnie Brooks, Albert Collins, Son Seals), their deepest affection seems reserved for those acts (the Fellows, Koko Taylor, James Cotton) whose music changes little through the years, who remain as safe, fun, and familiar as a beer blast among old frat buddies.

But the more adventurous-minded among us have often carped about the band’s sameness. Great party music, we’d say; slick arrangements, and the guys can sure play–but if we wanted Old Home Week we’d visit our folks. (Of course logical consistency isn’t expected among opinionated blues fanatics; many of us would praise repetitive traditionalism in other artists, like Sunnyland Slim or Jimmy Rogers.

In the late 80s Twist became ill. Martin Allbritton, a singer and drummer who’d been a Mellow Fellow in the downstate days, was brought back into the fold as a vocalist to help take some of the pressure off Twist. When Twist died last March, Allbritton became lead singer. A lot of people, while saddened by the big man’s passing, hoped the addition of Allbritton would shake the band from its creative lethargy and bring back some of the rowdy exuberance Twist was known for when he was singing in redneck joints in southern Illinois, protected from the audience by chicken wire.

Street Party, the band’s fifth LP, is their first since Twist passed away. It doesn’t entirely escape the formulaic binds that have constricted them in the past, but it shows encouraging signs of adventurousness. Allbritton’s voice lacks the sustained, testosterone-heavy authority of Twist’s baritone roar, but he and Gene “Daddy G” Barge combine to bring the Fellows more vocal versatility than they’ve had in a long time.

Some may find Street Party overblown; certainly it comes on with more grandiosity than much classic soul. But that’s probably necessary to reach most of today’s “mainstream” white R & B audience. Nurtured on rock, along with the psychedelic crossover black pop of the late 60s and 70s and the rococo flamboyance of moderns like Al Jarreau and Bobby McFerrin, they need some bombast in their funk to keep them interested.

The opener, “I’ve Got to Find a Way,” starts off with a kick-ass guitar/horn punch and continues on the same level, Allbritton’s vocals cutting in with a power remindful of Twist in his prime. The arrangement evokes the halcyon days of soul; the smooth melodic bridge counters the hard-driving danceability of the rest of the rhythm track.

Allbritton’s vocal role models (James Brown, Wilson Pickett, et al) are obvious–maybe a tad too obvious–but his timbre is rich, and at least on this selection all the borrowed nuances fit into place. Even the neo-Superfly guitar chops, punctuated by Allbritton’s James Brown-ish grunts and exclamations (“Good God! Sock it to me!”) work. It’s the kind of opening cut that can nail you to the wall–you’ve almost got to dance in self-defense.

Tenor saxophonist Barge is a Chicago legend; he’s the “Daddy G” on Gary “U.S.” Bonds’s rock-and-roll classic “Quarter to Three” and is among Chicago’s most respected arrangers and session men. In recent years he’s become increasingly involved with the Mellow Fellows, performing in most of their Chicago-area shows and insinuating himself into the band as both soloist and principal arranger. The horn charts on Street Party are his.

But it’s his voice, with its mellifluous soulfulness and depth, that will surprise a lot of people on this LP. He uncorks it first on “I’ve Got a Feeling,” a novelty number he introduces with a sax solo that’s a masterpiece of understatement. His singing is something else again. Barge first affects the steely assertiveness of an Albert King, then rescues himself from macho excess with a funny description of the various physical symptoms of jealousy–hiccups, a jumping left eye–that demonstrates how elastic his voice is. The horns riff smoothly above funked-up bass and guitar lines.

We hear Allbritton again on the soul ballad “Feels Like Rain.” He stretches to new levels of expressiveness on this one; he has to strain to make it work, but it does, dusky and understated, buoyed by guitarist Pete Special’s nod to the famous “Rainy Night in Georgia” riff. In the great soul tradition, the hooks pull one in completely: Daddy G’s sax solo–sublime and gospel-sweet, evoking the wind and clouds of John Hiatt’s lyrics–comes in just where we’re set up to receive it. Hiatt’s lyrics are a little portentous, even sloppy at times, but then the point of this kind of song ain’t the precision, it’s the passion.

Not everything on the album works perfectly; the title track doesn’t entirely succeed. The opening street-corner sound effects and the gangster imagery in the lyrics seem forced; Allbritton’s roll call of participants in a mythic inner-city block party includes the “Spanish Kings,” among others. It’s a self-conscious attempt to creat a 90s-era “Wang Dang Doodle,” but the horns sound ironically smooth amid all the badass posturing. (In live performance, though, the song’s anthemic sweatiness is incendiary.)

Roosevelt Sykes’s chestnut “Driving Wheel” has been pretty much done to death, usually in the mold of Junior Parker’s more famous version, but the Fellows take it for a sprightly romp. Allbritton overdoes the vocal clowning in places, maybe because the song is as cliched to him as it is to the rest of us.

Side two, though, starts off with the lovely and unexpected ballad “We’ll Be Friends,” sung in aching harmony by Barge and Allbritton. Originally written for Allbritton and Twist, it’s a lyrical celebration of friendship–a message song reminiscent of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” period, or Gil Scott-Heron’s paeans to love and community. Barge’s sax hits the right mix of sadness and celebration, and the masculine but tender tones of the vocalists underline the song’s message. In these times of pervasive macho bluster, it’s encouraging to hear a song remind us that men loving can move more mountains than men fighting.

The steaming “Don’t Turn Your Heater Down” follows, and Allbritton returns to his James Brown/Wilson Pickett bag, appropriate for a song borrowed from Sam and Dave’s repertoire (that’s why the lyrics–“You’re the only girl I know / that can love me with a lotta soul . . . you look so cute, strollin’ around in your bathing suit”–sound somewhat dated). The horns kick in a Famous Flames-style groove, while Allbritton brings a bluesy immediacy to the song’s soul cadences. As usual, the sax break, this time by Terry Ogolini, provides a savory interlude.

Side two’s highlight, though, is “Me and My Woman,” a blues-funk outing with the horns chomping down on the melody line and a somewhat childlike simplicity (think of the arrangement on Sly Stone’s “Everyday People”) countering the hardness of the vocals, which sound uncannily like Albert King. The lyrics are also reminiscent of King (“Me and my woman, we don’t get along but one day at a time”). Drummer William “Kax” Ratliff pounds out a tough beat behind the slow-popping rhythm section, and David Mick’s guitar lines are as bluesy as his tone is contemporary and smooth.

To my ears, “Me and My Woman” is unique among this album’s offerings in that it could appeal to both blues traditionalists and the Fellows’ usual predominantly white college-circuit following. There’s no artificially high energy or self-conscious posing, and Mick’s fusion of blues and urban contemporary styles reflects modern blues tastes. The track concludes with a spoken narrative on the unpredictability of women that might rankle the more politically correct segment of the white college set but would likely elicit affirmation from black listeners, both male and female, who’d understand it for the good-natured signifying it’s intended to be.

The best thing about Street Party is the obvious stretching the band does–sometimes in surprising directions. Terry Ogolini’s showcase, the standard “Since I Fell for You,” might seem an unlikely sax vehicle, but Ogolini makes the most of it. His tone is a bit more constricted than Barge’s gospel-y wail, but he elaborates imaginatively on the tune’s pop melodic structure, and Don Tenuto weighs in with a lithe trumpet solo. Likewise “Last Night” (not the Little Walter standard) is bluesy pop–light and danceable, but given depth by the hint of mournful introspection in the melody line’s occasional descent into minor keys.

The closing track, “Broad Daylight,” again featuring Barge’s vocals, is a straight-ahead 4/4 steamroller that might remind some of Springsteen, especially in its strategically placed minor- key punctuation points and the melding of R & B chords with rock-and-roll propulsiveness. It’s an unabashed anthem, asserting that “it’s gonna be all right” if we can just “play on,” that “broad daylight” is just around the corner–obviously intended as both a tribute to Twist and a joyful affirmation of perseverance in the face of his loss.

“Broad Daylight” is the perfect clincher for a gutty, powerful album that shows a band restless to explore new directions as they retain their patented good-time roots. Music that reminds us of the possibility of daylight in these dark and troubled times is more than fun–it’s healing and absolutely essential.