Royal Southern Brotherhood - Don't Look Back (2015)
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Blues, Blues Rock, R&B | Ruf Records #RUF 1215
Royal Southern Brotherhood is an American blues and blues rock supergroup, consisting of singer and percussionist Cyril Neville, vocalist and guitarist Devon Allman, vocalist and guitarist Mike Zito, drummer Yonrico Scott, and bassist Charlie Wooton. New blood. New beginnings. For Royal Southern Brotherhood, Don't Look Back isn't just an album title, but the attitude that drove the award-winning US band's third release. Tracked at the iconic Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with an all-guns-blazing new guitar lineup and production team, this is the sound of a band rolling with the punches and turning the page. The past year has seen seismic change for RSB. If you've read the rock press headlines, you'll know that founder members Devon Allman and Mike Zito have now amicably departed to pursue their solo careers, following stellar contributions to 2012's self-titled debut album, 2014's HeartSoulBlood, and the tours that rocked twenty-plus countries across the planet...
Most assuredly, those are huge shoes to fill, but in 2015, Don't Look Back proves the MkII lineup is up to the mark.
You've already met Cyril Neville: groove god, voicebox extraordinaire and the beating heart of the Brotherhood. From roots in The Meters, into The Neville Brothers and onto his solo career, Cyril's hallowed status in his native New Orleans was rubber-stamped last year when he represented the city for Dave Grohl's Sonic Highways documentary. As ever, he's flanked by drum master Yonrico Scott and bass powerhouse Charlie Wooton: the backbone that drove the RSB from the start. Your favourite band is in safe hands.
Now, the band dynamic that Cyril famously describes as a "gumbo" gets a fiery new pinch of spice with a fresh guitar partnership. Blues-rock fans will know to expect big things from Bart Walker. A head-turning Nashville gunslinger, Bart's early dues were paid with Mike Farris and Reese Wynans, but he made his first real ripples with 2013's Ruf debut Waiting On Daylight and that year's Blues Caravan tour. For Don't Look Back, Bart steps up as guitarist, songwriter and occasional vocalist. "Joining RSB," he nods, "was the best idea anyone had for me."
Recruiting Tyrone Vaughan was another great idea. Like his feted predecessor, Devon Allman, the Texas guitarist knows all about the double-edged sword of a celebrated surname: he's the son of Jimmie Vaughan and nephew of the immortal Stevie Ray Vaughan. Yet Tyrone has always walked his own path, coming up the hard way in Austin and proving his songcraft with the blend of rock, blues and country on 2014's Downtime. He's the only man for the gig.
The original RSB lineup was world-renowned for its chemistry and telepathy ("To use a basketball analogy," Cyril once noted, "anyone you throw the ball to is a three-point shooter"). The revelation is that when the new five-piece began pinballing ideas in a rental house on the banks of the Mississippi River, they locked into a fist-tight creative unit. By the time the Brothers hit Fame in early 2015, they had the songs primed and were ready to explode into the sessions, with Grammy-winning producer Tom Hambridge and engineer John Gifford III catching the sparks. Bolstering the core band, meanwhile, were guest musicians Jimmy Hall (sax/vocals), Ivan Neville (B3/piano/clavinet), Max Abrams (sax) and Paul Armstrong (trumpet).
Opened in the Sixties by Rick Hall, Fame might have hosted all the soul heavyweights (even Cyril was momentarily starstruck at using the same vocal booth as Wilson Pickett), but if these walls could talk, they'd tell of the creative hot-streak that birthed Don't Look Back. RSB have always blurred the boundaries of genre, walking a tightrope between blues, rock, soul and funk, and operating an anything-goes policy. As Cyril says: "No rules in this band."
Likewise, with songwriting contributions from all five members, Don't Look Back runs with that rebellious spirit. Kickstarting the album, "I Wanna Be Free" is a stinging statement of intent, while "Reach My Goal" is a driving blues-rocker that defies the listener to stay despondent. As Cyril's vocal reminds us, with typical wisdom: "Keep your eye on the donut, not on the hole..."
"Don't Look Back" fuses swirled jazz chords and country-tinged banjo, while "The Big Greasy" spins tales of late-night excess over a squelchy funk bassline ("Dirty dancin'/All-night romancin'/Big Lou hangin' from the chandelier"). Elsewhere, the Brothers bring the funk with the wah riffs and parping brass of "They Don't Make 'Em Like You No More", and break into a airtight strut with "Poor Boy". Women come and go, with "Hard Blues" waving off a cheating partner over a muscular blues riff, but this is an album with a big heart, most notably when Cyril blows a kiss to his spouse on "Better Half": "God bless everything you do - my lover, my wife and my best friend too."
As the album plays out with the soulful road-dog travelogue of "Come Hell Or High Water", and the sparse, acoustic-led "Anchor Me", you'll be left in no doubt that the Brotherhood have still got it. But perhaps it's the chorus of the title track that really tells you where this band is at: "Don't look back/There's a better way. Don't look back/Headed to a brand new day."
Some bands fly high then fall like stones. With Don't Look Back, Royal Southern Brotherhood have blazed seamlessly into a new era, safeguarding everything that fans loved about their trademark gumbo, but turning up the heat. So don't look back. After all, who needs past glories when the future looks this bright...?