Over the course of seven previous albums, Hamilton guitar slinger and singer/songwriter Steve Strongman has steadily climbed the Canadian blues ladder. He’s the winner of a Juno (in the 2013 Album of the Year category) and multiple Maple Blues awards, and his signing to Stony Plain/Linus Entertainment in 2020 is further fuelling his career ascent.

This album project, released under the moniker of The Strongman Blues Remedy, is the first fruit of that deal, and it is a mighty tasty one. Strongman has taken a fresh collaborative approach to this recording by inviting some illustrious Canadian blues peers to the party. Contributing guest vocals to five of the ten tunes here are Steve Marriner, Harrison Kennedy, Dawn Tyler Watson, and Crystal Shawanda, while his ace instrumental accompanists are drummer Dave King, keyboardist Jesse O’Brien, and bassist Alec Fraser, who plays on three tracks, with Strongman adding bass on the other seven.

Co-writers with Strongman on the all-original album are Dave King, Rob Szabo (he also mixed the album), Marriner, Watson, and Kennedy, with Strongman taking care of the production. Given the pandemic situation at the time of the album’s creation, guest contributions were recorded at studios in Montreal, Nashville, Toronto, and Hamilton, but the resulting songs never sound pieced together.

The first dose of Strongman’s blues medicine is “Hard Luck,” a Strongman/Szabo co-write. It is an up-tempo romp featuring typically forceful playing and virile vocals from Strongman, and buttressed by lively barrelhouse piano from O’Brien and backing vocals. There’s nothing highly original in the sentiments of the lyrics, given that bad luck is a recurring theme in the blues, but this is an energizing album opener.

Next up is “Swansong,” a co-write with Marriner and King that showcases more of that beefy guitar sound, neatly accompanied by Marriner’s famed harmonica blowing. He and Strongman trade vocal lines and harmonize effectively, resulting in an album highlight.

It is followed by “Fine Young Man,” a Strongman/Watson co-write driven by her powerful voice. It is a fun tune with a female take on love and lust – “I’m like a fine wine, getting better with age, I need someone who appreciates.” Her list of wants is neatly punctuated by more of that Strongman axemanship, and the result sounds like an  airplay contender.

“I Don’t Miss You,” is a Strongman and Dave King co-write featuring guest vocals from Hamilton soul/blues legend Harrison Kennedy. His soulful voice helps make the tune sound like something you’d have heard on ‘70s FM radio, and it’d be nice if radio now took notice of its crossover potential.

Kennedy returns on the next cut, “I Like To Ride,” a tune he helped Strongman pen in reportedly very spontaneous fashion. It’s an up-tempo blues-rock tune whose call and response backing vocals, rollicking piano, blowing harp, and virile guitar make this a treat.

The pace eases up next with “White Lightning,” a classic slow blues drinking song featuring some of Strongman’s best playing on the record. His solo mid-song brings the various Kings to mind.

Next up is “Tell Me I’m Wrong,” another solo Strongman composition. He is joined here by Crystal Shawanda, whose gutsy voice grabs you by the scruff of the neck and reminds us that her transition from country to the blues is a real boost to the genre here. An album highlight.

It is followed by “Getting Stoned,” and, after a drinking song, Strongman goes to pot on this solo composition. An acoustic tune, it has an old-time feel, though of course the topic of cannabis consumption is a timely one. Strongman recently told The Hamilton Spectator’s Graham Rockingham that it was inspired by the influx of pot shops in the Hammer and that “I wrote that song with the reefer culture of old traditional jazz and blues in mind.”

“True To Me,” another co-write with Dave King, turns the electricity back on. Anchored by a rock-solid groove (Strongman plays the bass here), it features freewheeling harmonica, a nice touch of slide, and a strong vocal performance.

Rounding out the album is “Love Comin’ Down,” a solo composition with a full-blooded guitar sound a mite suggestive of Stevie Ray Vaughan. 

This well-crafted and diverse collection confirms the value of well-curated collaborations, and we look forward to a second dose of the Strongman blues remedy.  (Kerry Doole)