Recording of April 1995: Keep On Movin'

MIGHTY SAM McCLAIN: Keep On Movin'
AudioQuest Music AQ-1031 (LP/CD*). Joe Harley, prod.; Michael C. Ross, Andrew Page, Scott Gormley, engs. AAA/AAD. TTs: 49:48, 54:27*

My God, I thought, halfway through listening to a test pressing of Keep On Movin', Mighty Sam McClain's second album of killer R&B; It's better than the first album. John Atkinson and I named Give It Up to Love "Recording of the Month" in October 1993—it was one of the easiest choices we ever made, and one of the easiest reviews I ever wrote. Every cut is so good that, by the end of the album, the question asked with ever-greater disbelief as the album progresses—"Can he possibly keep up this level of quality?"—built up considerable tension. (The answer is Yes.)

But it'd been a while since I'd listened to that first album. I put it on. Yup—every cut was just as distinctive, just as full of heart, soul, sweat, and guts, just as great-sounding as I hadn't remembered.

So, no—Keep On Movin' is not quite as good as Give It Up to Love, doesn't have quite the variety or edge. But that's like saying the Beatles' Revolver isn't as good as Rubber Soul. Why waste time arguing when you can actually listen to such great recordings?

Mighty Sam is a blues/soul preacher, exhorter, pleader, groaner, and chuckler. He interrupts himself again and again to laugh, to mutter asides to the band, to himself, to shout in what sounds like the sheer joy of great music-making, that in-the-moment, clock-stopping clarity of creation that allows a blues singer to transform confusion, pain, and rage into pure delight. Aretha probably embodies this more than anyone, but listening to Sam just makes me grin—even more than Bobby Blue Bland does, to whose style Sam's is most obviously similar.

McClain's original tunes are so soundly in the tradition of soul standards that it's hard to believe they're not already broken-in, worn smooth by years of being sung by a thousand underpaid singers in a thousand sticky-floored clubs, and fitted as closely to the voice as solid old carpenter's tools are to the hand. Quite a trick.

For instance: "I'm Sorry" (only on the CD) is a nakedly emotional confession to which McClain rises magnificently. And such a simple vehicle as "I'm So Lonely" has amazing depths in Sam's hands and voice. The song starts off as a standard I'm-so-lonely-I-could-die blues, but in the closing vamp Sam swings into flat-out existential heroics: "I'm looking out way across the water / I'm looking across the water this evening now / and all I see is darkness all around me / I can't see nothin' but darkness out there Lord..." This goes way beyond my-baby-left-me. Brave stuff, and some of the most convincing, primal blues-singing I've ever heard.

Mighty Sam and producer Joe Harley pretty much follow the first album's formula: mostly McClain originals, one highly charged Al Green cover ("Lord Will Make A Way"), and a quiet close with McClain's unaccompanied voice. The band is so smoothly supportive as to be well-nigh invisible. This is a compliment, except in the case of guitarist Kevin Barry, who just can't play in the same league Sam sings in. But David Limina's Hammond B-3 organ fills and breaks are, in a word, perfect, and the four-man horn section is an inspired addition: trumpeter Walter Platt's charts are in the classic '60s Memphis soul style, but infinitely better-recorded.

It's interesting to compare AQ's sound to Chesky's: the latter seems more in service to the sound. Listening to a Chesky folk or jazz recording, I'm always aware of how amazingly detailed the sound is, how naturally the transients decay, how plentiful the ambient cues. Trouble is, I almost never apply any of those superlatives to the music. Chesky sonics are so real as to sound surreal (literally, "super-real")—so natural as to sound, well, unnatural. But perhaps that's just because the music is never this good.

Keep On Movin' 's astonishingly good engineering, on the other hand, is typical of AudioQuest's "house sound": smooth, entirely satisfying and believable, but always in the service of the music. No control-room puritans here: The B-3 Lesley sound is panned across the entire soundstage, Paul Bryan's bass is plugged directly into the board, and there's some tasteful reverb on the horns—but even I get tired of the dry, rattly, horn-as-percussion-instrument sound of some of those classic Stax/Volt sides.

Keep On Movin' is available on LP as well as CD; my vinyl copy was almost entirely free of surface noise, and I was hard put to hear much difference other than a better sense on CD of "hearing the walls" of the recording venue on Sam's vocals; but as this was obvious only on the occasional bit of studio chat between songs, the point seems academic. Great LP sound, great CD sound—but only the CD has "I'm Sorry."

This stuff is addictive: The only record I want to hear after Keep On Movin' is Give It Up to Love. The only record I want to hear after Give It Up to Love is Keep On Movin'.—Richard Lehnert

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