Shakey Trill strips down the blues to its glorious essence. This eponymous debut album is the product of a duo from Saugeen Shores, Ontario — guitarist Mike “Shakey” MacDonald and harmonica player Tyler Pantlin, who was influenced by the trill of Muddy Waters’ harp blowers. As Pantlin says of this acoustic release, “There are no bells and whistles; [it’s] completely naked and unfiltered.”  Their aim was to create an album that stayed true to the core of the genre, with no excess or over-production.

MacDonald wrote all but two songs on this CD and is the predominant vocalist. It’s the culmination of their preparation for the 35th International Blues Challenge in Memphis in 2019, where they were chosen as finalists in their category. The multi-talented Alec Fraser produced the album and contributed his dexterous musicianship on a couple of tracks.

Shakey Trill instantly captivates the listener with spirited fingerpicking and harmonica in the buoyant opener, “I Love That Woman.” “Lighthouse” is a plea to redeem the derelict structure as Mike slides on through on his resonator guitar while the harp shivers in response. Tyler’s melancholy harp adds to the introspective mood of “Time to Breathe,” a sumptuous song with gorgeous lyrics.

Then Pantlin takes over the vocals as MacDonald glides in with Muddy Waters’s iconic “Can’t Be Satisfied,” a track that sparkles with peppy resophonic guitar, articulated by Alec Fraser’s snappy backing on his combo standup-bass-and-drums instrument. “Summer Grove” is an atmospheric gem accentuated with splendid fingerpicking and shimmering harmonica. The duo dig deep in the Delta dirt in “Lonely,” featuring rousing harp with a profusion of trill, echoing Pantlin’s original inspiration. There’s a pleasing interplay between MacDonald‘s vocals and the harmonica in “Can’t Let This Ride,” underlaid with a bedrock of slide guitar and Fraser’s rhythm.

In the upbeat “Hold on to It,” the harp recalls a train, puffing and wailing down the track, propelled by lively guitar. Emotions are laid bare in “Build an Institution,” with exquisite fingerpicking perfectly complemented by Pantlin’s languorous vocals. The musicians sing together in “Dark Road,” written by Tyler’s idols Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, as Pantlin stretches out on some superb harp work.

The poignancy of MacDonald’s lyrics, as he profiles a homeless Torontonian in “The Mission Man,” is elevated through his heartrending vocals and elegant fingerpicking, accompanied by a mournful harmonica. Then Mike’s songwriting turns joyful, and along with Tyler’s playful harp, the duo bring the album to an optimistic close with “Sailing.”

Shakey Trill is an impressive debut, resplendent with excellent musicianship and originality. Let’s hope there’s more to come.  (Sandra B. Tooze)