Fun, Sophisticated Blues
Jeff Schroedl has been a Strat player for a long time, and occasionally employs an ES-335 or a Les Paul for rhythm tracks, but what is less known about him is that he is a great blues story-teller. On Altered Five Blues Band’s sixth studio offering, Holler If You Hear Me (3 September, 2021; Blind Pig Records), for example, Schroedl has penned all the songs. And while he riffs off the familiar blues themes of booze problems and heartache, he does so in a much more literarily attractive way.
Joined in the band by vocalist Jeff Taylor, keyboardist Raymond Tevich, bassist Mark Solveson, drummer Alan Arber and Jason Ricci on harmonica, and with three-time Grammy-winner Tom Hambridge in charge of production, the Milwaukee-based band has again come up with something special.
The title track Holler If You Hear Me ignites the set by highlighting Taylor’s powerful vocals and putting piano and guitar to the fore. This foot-tapping anthem is sure to become a favourite in their much-vaunted live performances.
The ghost of Robert Johnson hovers over the wonderful Guilty Of A Good Time, as Taylor sings “I ain’t no guilty of no crime, Baby I’m just guilty of a good time,” and suddenly we are transported to a world of hand-rolled cigars and bourbon in some late-night bar. Holding On With One Hand slows the action right down for a story of heartbreak: “I’m trying the best I can, seems you’re holding on with one hand, is there someone new?, help me understand,” Taylor laments, before Schroedl unleashes a piercing solo at around two-and-a-half minutes.
Full Moon Half Crazy ups the pace and has the merit of showcasing the chops of all the band’s members. The funk-driven All Suit No Soul will keep you moving your feet as Taylor tells the story of a wealthy crook who is all front, while he is supported by some fine Hammond organ and guitar solos. Next up is I Got All I Need, which features some lyrics that cleverly name-checks both premium vodka and an American blues legend: “I got liquor when I’m lonely and a lover who’s good to me, I got Ketel One and Keb Mo’ when I’m feeling low, cigarettes and soul food when I’m all alone.”
Clear Conscience, Bad Memory tells the amusing story of a ‘player’ who is a bit of a lad; while In The Name Of No Good is a rocky blues number that preaches that “sometimes every man should, live it up in the name of no good.” Leave Before I Let You Down transports us back to the late night bar, where one can imagine Tom Waits from his Blue Valentine period waiting in the wings.
Altered Five get funked up for the outstanding Fifteen Minutes Of Blame, which again features Hammond organ and a delightful solo. Big Shout Out closes the party by “shouting out to everyone who has built the blues” and then amusingly lists a bunch of names from history who “all paved the way for me and you.”
Holler If You Hear Me has the merit of being both fun and sophisticated, and is a credit to all those involved in its production. The Altered Five Blues Band won an Independent Music Award and a Wisconsin Music Award in 2018, and continue to go from strength to strength. A special shout out for the work of Jeff Schroedl though, who in one interview shared what is perhaps one of the secrets of the band’s success: “Several years ago I simply stopped trying to sound like someone else and started to build my own style around […] the quirky things that set me apart, and started to emphasize those things.”