In a passionate howl, Johnny Riley’s voice ushers us into Live At the Bluesberry Café in “Holler Pt. 1” whilst painting a portrait in pure Texas blue that will only grow darker (and yet, somehow, more vibrant) as “Ain’t That a Shame (But That’s the Blues)” kicks the record’s first instrumentation into gear. An acoustic guitar fills the air with dry heat while the bassline behind it crushes us with a smoggy low-end tonality, but it isn’t until we get through this introduction and into the next song, “She Don’t Call Me Baby Anymore,” that we start to understand the depth of Riley’s multifaceted skillset. He’s a crooner at heart, but with these strangling strings around him, he’s a man desperate to drag us asunder with him.
Watermelon Slim stops by for “Life of Sorrow,” and his presence absolutely adds to the tenacious tone of the record. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” keeps the aggressive harp harmonies a-comin’ like they’re going out of style, and though the rhythm here isn’t quite as controlled as it is in “There’s a Man Goin’ Round,” the mashup of different tempos is part of the reason why the disc has the kind of appeal that it does – even after numerous listens. Riley has a lot of love for the blues in his soul, and here, he isn’t restricting that love in any way. His efforts yield one heck of a listenable LP, and moreover, instant classics like the dark, misery-celebrating “Erase the Pages.”
When Johnny Riley is going off on a groove, like in “Johnny’s Boogie,” he seems just as at ease with the setting as he does in the much more temperamental “Me, The Blues, and Jack” or bonus number “Southern Born (Remix),” which definitely tells me a lot about his potential in and outside of the studio. “Change” and its lusty melody comes off smooth and easy like a long tall glass of whiskey, and while I would have stuck “Death Comes Creeping” closer to the start of the tracklist than the conclusion (as it is in this instance), it definitely brings us full circle from a lyrical perspective. Live At the Bluesberry Café doesn’t unfold like a standard live record, but in these strange times, it actually reflects the social narrative of 2020 in the most ironic of ways imaginable.
“Holler Pt. 2” finishes up what “Holler Pt. 1” started at the beginning of the album so many minutes earlier, and as the bellow of Johnny Riley disappears into the cloud of invisible haze from which it once came roaring out, there’s a feeling that we’ve only heard the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this singer, songwriter and genuine man of the blues has to share with the world. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first picked up Live At the Bluesberry Café, but having given it more than a close examination this past week, I think it’s an undebatable classic – and the best look Texas blues has had in quite some time.
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