New faces keep Roomful of Blues hoppin’
In over three decades of existence, Roomful of Blues has learned to deal with changes, both internal and external. Their founding guitarist, Duke Robillard, left ages ago to pursue a solo career, a path followed some years later by Robillard’s successor, Ronnie Earl. Still Roomful plowed on, continuing to make good music and picking up fans around the world along the way.The defection of a single member of the band, however, was nothing compared to what Roomful faced at the end of 1997 and the beginning of 1998. Over a span of several months, five players departed and five new faces showed up. The boatload of changes that overtook Roomful of Blues gave the band a chance to prove that survival is ingrained on a group level, as the band not only carried on without missing a beat, but also put out one of its best records yet, “There Goes the Neighborhood.”At the front of Roomful’s new lineup and sound is lead singer Mac Odom, who joined the Providence, R.I., band in December of ’97, just before the band was heading into the studio to record “There Goes the Neighborhood.” And as new as Odom was to Roomful of Blues, that’s how new the blues were to Odom.”I wasn’t really a blues singer,” said Odom, who had been a bassist for the likes of James Brown and K.C. of K.C. & the Sunshine Band. “Most of the stuff I had done was r & b and pop. So I was real apprehensive about the gig. It wasn’t my niche.”But Odom, a native of Paterson, N.J., slipped into the new style with considerable ease. A month after joining the band and warming up with a handful of gigs, Odom was in the studio to record “There Goes the Neighborhood” with his new mates – including Roomful veterans, trumpeter Bob Enos, drummer John Rossi, saxophonist Rich Lataille and Chris Vachon on guitar. (Trombonist John Wolf and saxophonist Kevin May joined the band around the same time as Odom; bassist Greg Silva and keyboardist Steve Kostakes came on board just after “There Goes the Neighborhood” was recorded.)If there was upheaval in the band, it doesn’t show on acetate. “There Goes the Neighborhood” is exceptional big-band blues. The disc opens with Odom’s own “Backseat Blues,” a tune he had written years ago and thought would be an ideal fit for Roomful of Blues. The disc also includes a pair of songs – “Just Like Dynamite” and “Blue, Blue World” – written by Vachon, as well as Roomful’s typically eclectic assortment of cover material: Duke Ellington’s elegant “Rocks in My Bed,” Memphis Slim’s “The Comeback,” and a staggering version of Doyle Bramhall’s “She’s Mine.” Odom may not have been schooled in the blues, but his voice, with its r & b and soul inflections, fits right in at the front of the sound.”A lot of people said I had big shoes to fill,” Odom said of replacing former Roomful singer-harmonica player Sugar Ray Norcia, who is pursuing a solo career. Odom, a longtime player on the Providence scene, had never heard Roomful of Blues perform. “But my approach is, whatever song you do, you do it your own way. Ray was a great singer, but he and I are very different,” said Odom.Moreover, Odom was looking to step into bigger shoes than he had been used to as a sideman.”That’s one of the incentives for me to do this, to step out and be the frontman and lead singer,” he said. “It was all new to me – the material, the whole blues thing. I was green as green can get, with the music and the whole bit.”I was definitely, ‘I don’t know.’ At the time I joined the band, I’d been off the road for four years. But I’m not a kid, and I thought if I don’t do this now, then when?”Now, with a well-received album and nearly a your of touring behind him, Odom is very pleased with his change in direction.”I think the new band is the best version of Roomful I’ve heard,” said Odom. “It’s definitely different, but it’s got the right ingredients.”
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