Gaetano Letizia & the Underworld Blues Band. Voodoo Doll and Other Blues Lessons.
Letizia Music, 2014. Gaetano Letizia: http://www.gaetanoletizia.com/
Underworld Blues Band: http://www.underworldblues.com/
Older veterans of the Northeast Ohio blues/jazz scene, the Underworld Blues Band describes itself as a “progressive” blues band that came together in 2010. The star of the show is guitarist/singer Letizia, but the core of the group is both Letizia and Larry Keller, along with newcomer and/or replacement Steve Renko (Mike D’Elia is listed as the drummer on the website). Letizia has decades of experience, with multiple bands going at once (his jazz trio with some other guys, as well as solo work). This background is reflected in the sophisticated stylings and the varying combinations of blues, jazz, fusion, funk, and other stuff in the dozen tunes presented here. While they often play standards in concert (Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and others), here they’ve chosen to present a dozen originals. No credits on songwriting show up, but I suspect that Letizia was involved in most if not all of them. On this album the core group gets some help from Jake Tijerina on keyboards, which adds both depth and breadth to their sound.
The band starts off the album with a funky blues instrumental, which does a nice job of showing off their collective and individual talents. Letizia’s guitar gives way at the halfway mark to solos by Tijerina on organ, Keller on bass, with a bit of time at the end for Renko on drums. The other instrumental, “Orange Sunglasses,” is in more of a jazz vein, less high-octane, but another fine showcase for the musicians. Letizia’s guitar can be gentle or blistering, pinpoint or fuzz-heavy, depending on the mood, but in all cases demonstrates truly fine playing. Kudos to Tijerina, as I love the organ in this context, and his work is phenomenal. The title track is a humorous excursion into the singer’s pecadillos and the rectification of the situation through magical means. It’s here where an alternative meaning to “progressive” starts to appear, with lyrics beginning to eschew the traditional bad boy and misogynist talk of so many blues songs. “Kill My Conscience” is in a similar vein, with the singer wrestling with desires vs. doing what’s right. “The Devil is a Nice Guy” offers a bit of parody, and “Sold My Soul” presents a similar theme of compromised values, but in a more serious context. The good vs. evil theme seems to follow through quite a bit of the album, and provides a lyrical context a cut above most blues songs in sophistication. Surrounding the lyrics is some dynamite jazz/funk/blues by all involved.
“Hurt Myself” takes us back to a more basic blues sound, with Bobby Huszar on vocals, who reminds me a bit of Jon Hendricks (of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross fame). The mood continues to change through the second portion of the album, with “Bleed” and “All I Need” lean more towards rock, although the latter contains some sweet acoustic guitar work by Letizia. Curiously, “Blow the Blues Away” seems more rock than blues as well, while “Torture Me’ is back to the blues, and fits thematically better with material at the beginning of the album. Blistering solo work by Letizia continues. The group finishes up with a jazzy pro-Cleveland anthem, complete with monologue, that doesn’t sit quite right with the rest of the album from my perspective, but would certainly go over well in concert.
This is a fascinating album, with Letizia and the band to be congratulated on their sophisticated musicianship and enjoyable songs. They play around the area, so catch them when you can.
Personnel: Gaetano Letizia (guitar, vocals), Larry Keller (bass guitar), Steve Renko (drums), Jake Tijerina (keyboards), Bobby Huszar (lead vocals on “Hurt Myself”), Ro Brown (background vocals).
Tracks: Big Foot, Voodoo Doll, Kill My Conscience, The Devil is a Nice Guy, Sold My Soul, Hurt Myself, Bleed, All I Need, Blow the Blues Away, Torture Me, Orange Sunglasses, Big Secret. (Track listings for “All I Need” and “Bleed” are reversed on CD)
The Grand Wazoo