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The Insomniacs – At Least I'm Not With You
East Side SlimBy East Side Slim

The Insomniacs – At Least I'm Not With You
The Insomniacs – At Least I'm Not With You
Delta Groove Music, 2009

The Insomniacs are a very young, very talented, very soulful band based out of Portland, Oregon, with 2 fine CDs now available. At Least I'm Not With You is the band's 2nd release on Delta Groove, and was recorded in only 2 days. If that seems like a short time, remember that their material has been fine-tuned on the road over the months and years since their 1st release (Left Coast Swing.) Self-produced, Left Coast Swing was recorded in the living room of the band's bass player, Dean Mueller and eventually picked up for release by Delta Groove Productions. The Insomniacs style can be thought of as a direct descendant of the old James Harman and Hollywood Fats bands, rolling influences such as blues, jazz, swing, as well as early R&B, rock 'n' roll and soul, into a eminently satisfying musical mix – Left Coast Blues is just about right the right description of this sound. The boys have had great success in a relatively short amount of time, even being nominated for the 2008 Blues Music Award (formerly the Handy's) Best New Artist Debut (seems a little redundant, "new" and "debut", but I digress…)

The 4-piece band is comprised of Vyasa Dodson (vocals and guitar), Alex Shakeri (organ, piano occasional harp when performing live), Dean Mueller (bass) and Dave Melyan (skins and tins). Vyasa Dodson (his unusual 1st name is Sanskrit – talk to his Mother) is the band leader and focal point, being the primary songwriter and singer for the band. He is a legitimate musical triple-threat: songwriter (really the most important), guitarist and singer. Originally influenced by guitar players such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton, his whole musical world was turned upside-down when he started studying jump blues players such as Tiny Grimes, Junior Watson and Little Charlie (Baty). Vyasa is an incredibly tasty and well-versed guitar player. His unaffected singing is quite solid and is honest, but still sounds quite young at times. I really enjoy how his voice sounds on a couple of slow blues tunes on the CD, where he seemed to dig down a little deeper while singing, imparting a little more "edge" to his voice.

Alex Shakeri (keys) is the band's secret weapon, especially when he pulls his stool up to the Hammond B-3, but then I'm a sucker for B-3. He plays the organ with real soul and conviction, being the type of player you can sit back and shut your eyes to and just let the tones sweep over you. He happens to be a fantastic pianist as well, with his work being uniformly excellent and inventive. As mentioned previously, the band's rhythm section (give some love to the rhythm players!) is comprised of Dean Mueller and Dave Melyan. The 2 of them are rock solid. The ultimate compliment you can give to a blues rhythm section is that they play together almost as 1 musician, 1 voice. Dean and Dave most certainly do just that. I read a quote from Dean Mueller that I'd like to paraphrase for you: "Blue music just speaks to me…I knew I had found my home." East Side Slim says: That's the truth, baby, and blues is truth.

The Songs: (All songs written by Vyasa Dodson unless otherwise specified)

1. Lonesome – (Peter Chatman aka Memphis Slim)
--This cut is a cover of an old Memphis Slim tune, but it has been dramatically rearranged to fit the sound of The Insomniacs. Of course, a lot of Slim's old tunes featured Matt "Guitar" Murphy on guitar, whose performances were flat-out. Vyasa and the boys concentrated on that aspect of the song, making it a strong, up-tempo guitar-driven shuffle. As a bonus, Al Blake provides some nice harp work, reinforcing the influence that the Hollywood Fats Band has had, and continues to have, on younger blues and jump players.

2. Broke And Lonely – (Johnny Otis, Johnny "Guitar" Watson)
--This cover tune swings nicely, with a Texas swing sound imparted thanks to the pedal steel work of guest musician Joel Patterson. That makes this a mix of West Coast jump and Texas swing, which works very well. Remember, the swinging blues from the West Coast has much of it's origins in the Texas- and Oklahoma-bred players who moved out to the West Coast for work opportunities (both musical and 9-to-5) during and after WWII, musicians such as T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, Lowell Fulson, Lloyd Glen and Charles Brown.

3. Directly From My Heart To You – (Richard W. Penniman aka Little Richard)
--A cover of a Little Richard tune…you don't hear that much anymore, which is really too bad. This is solid blues number full of tough guitar and a tenor and baritone sax section courtesy of Jeff Turmes (ah, the wonders of modern multi-tracking). Vyasa's vocals are a little tougher here, too, sung with nice conviction and power.

4. Maybe Sometime Later
--Here is the 1st of Vyasa Dodson's own tunes. I'm not sure leading off the band's 2nd CD with 3 covers was the best of ideas, as the self-penned material is so strong and the performances of them seem to flow with a little something extra. This would have been the perfect cut to have led the CD off with. The song is a really nice blues, a little dark and slinky, with a wonderful bed of B-3 organ. Vyasa plays his heart out on guitar, wringing out every drop of emotion he can from the song. Tasty!

5. At Least I'm Not With You
--The title track of the CD, this is one of those songs about how thankful a man can be when a no-good mistreating woman finally moves on out of his life (girls, you can reverse this if you so please.) As the song says, "I might be alone but at least I'm not with you!!!!" It's best to find out at some point that life can be much better alone rather than being with a horrible person just for the sake of being with somebody. But then again, if that didn't happen think of all the great songs we wouldn't have today; you have to have material! This tune is a mid-tempo slinky cut, grooving along with tenor and Bari saxes ala The "5" Royales. I like this cut a lot.

6. Root Beer Float
--What a great title for this swingin' instrumental track! This one is West Coast swing set to an up-tempo shuffle rhythm. Vyasa and Alex each get plenty of chances to show what they can do on guitar and piano, respectively. The song is 4 minutes long, but it seems much, much shorter. As far as I'm concerned it is in the running for feel-good song of 2009. I think I hear some Junior Watson influences in that guitar work.

7. Hoodoo Man Blues – (Amos Blakemore aka Junior Wells)
--This is the Junior Wells-Buddy Guy (Friendly Chap) mid-'60s classic, from the album of the same name – which, by the way, was one of the very first (if not the very 1st) blues ALBUMS constructed as such, and not comprised as merely a collection of singles released over the previous several years (a morsel for all you trivia buffs.) Back to the review…this is a tough slow blues, and very faithful to the feel of Wells' and Guy's original classic. Vyasa's vocal work here is very good, as he sings harder here than on some of The Insomniacs more swingin' material, resulting in a bit of coarseness added to his voice. It sounds good! Also, harmonica is supplied courtesy of fellow Delta Groove artist Mitch Kashmar, who sounds phenomenal on this track. Mitch has several of his own CDs out. Harp fans should definitely check Mitch's work out.

8. She Can Talk
--This song is in the style of early rock 'n' roll tunes (early- to mid-'50s). The lyric is humorous, telling that even though "that" girl is incredibly easy on the eyes, all her non-stop talking makes her just too hard to take. There's tough guitar and piano solos during a mid-song bridge, and Alex' piano is boogie'n throughout the tune.

9. Baby Don't Do It – (Lowman Pauling)
-- Oh man, an old tune from The "5" Royales, who Lowman Pauling was guitar player and principal songwriter for. For those of you not familiar with the band, their material was very early R&B/Soul, where they took the passionate sounds of gospel and merged it with secular influences and lyrics (including Pauling's stinging guitar and rich chording), coming up with something entirely new and exciting in the process. Search out their material and buy it when you find it; you will thank me later. The song here is a wonderful rendering of the tune, as it swings slow, sexy and slinky, never in a hurry. I would have liked Vyasa sing this a little harder, but otherwise this is a great track.

10. Angry Surfer
--The title tells you all you need to know about the sounds you'll be hearing. Surf-guitar pushes the tune down the pipe, primal rock 'n' roll drumming drives it along, and the guys throw a couple of sung verses into the song for good measure. For all intents and purposes it's a very cool surf-rock instrumental, with a few words included just because they can. Watusi, baby!

11. Description Blues – (John Willie Henry)
--Ah, here's another deep, long slow blues number from the band. This thing tops out at just over 8 minutes. This isn't swing; it's all blues. Needless to say, there's plenty of solo space for Vyasa and Alex, with Alex playing B-3 on this tune; he's a phenomenal B-3 player. He makes that thing cry, moan, wail and sing. What a beautiful instrument; and to think it's really nothing more than a tone generator. I guess it's all in how you manipulate those tones, isn't it. This tune is worth the price of the CD all by itself.

12. 20/20
--Ah, hindsight really is 20/20. Poor Vyasa, finally realizing how good that woman was, but it's now too late. Well, at least he took it out in song, and it's another good one. It's another B-3 showcase (I never get tired of that!), set over the top of a swingin' shuffle. Don't think Vyasa doesn't get his own licks in here, because he sure does. The young man is an incredibly tasteful and talented player, who uses a broad palette of sounds. He takes it from vicious single-notes attacks to beautiful chord work to twangy surf and everything in-between and outside those colors.

13. Insomniacs Boogie
--How about a tough, guitar-driven instrumental boogie to end the set? Well, your wish is granted. This one's going to be tough to pull off live without a second guitar player to comp the rhythm parts, but it sure is a lot of fun here on the CD. And as this is a boogie, Alex lays some fine boogie woogie piano on us as well. Listening to this song provides another case of time-warp-itis; the song is comes to an end after 4 minutes but feels like it's barely begun, which is a nice "problem" to have.

The Verdict:

This CD, At Least I'm Not With You, marks the sophomore effort on Delta Groove by The Insomniacs. One thing is for sure, there's no appearance of a sophomore slump on this disc. Honestly, this is a good 'un. The Insomniacs style of music is a blend of many styles: jump, blues, swing, R&B and rock 'n' roll, but no matter what it's always based in the blues. They happen to have 2 of the finest young bluesy featured players in the business in the band in Vyasa Dodson and Alex Shakeri, and the rhythm section of Dean Mueller (bass) and Dave Melyan (drums) is rock solid. Dodson is also a fine songwriter, and wrote 8 of the 13 songs on the CD. In addition, the band cherry-picked 5 fine tunes to cover, including songs associated with Memphis Slim, Jr. Wells and The "5" Royales. The guys led the album off with 3 cover tunes, but I thought the CD really hit its stride from track 4 (which is a Dodson tune) onward, which is comprised primarily of Dodson-written tunes. The band seemed to connect just a little bit better with their own tunes, although their performance on Hoodoo Man Blues is fantastic. For those readers in St. Louis, The Insomniacs perform at B.B.'s Jazz, Blues & Soups a couple times a year as they meander across the country while tour on tour. Try to catch them while they are in town; you won't be disappointed. Well, let's rate this bad boy – I'm giving At Least I'm Not With You a rating of 4.00 on the ol' STLBluesometer. To quote Scott Dirks (from the liner notes to Left Coast Blues, The Insomniacs 1st release): it all sounds like they're doing it just because they love it. And maybe that's the secret." That statement from Mr. Dirks pretty much sums up The Insomniacs sound in a nutshell.

Lee Howland - aka "East Side Slim"

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