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RECORD REVIEW : A Satisfying and Spirited Homage

October 27, 1994|MIKE BOEHM

*** Barrelhouse "Soul Pimps 'N' Blues Pushers" Steady Rollin' Records

A cheesy title isn't enough to detract from this classy, spirited homage to the definitive Southern soul sound of Stax Records. As unlikely as it might seem that an Orange County-bred white guy in his mid-20s could walk with the ghost of Otis Redding, Barrelhouse's Steave Ascasio does it with confidence and convincing soulfulness.

Grunting, hollering, pleading with the ardor-filled note-stretches that define soul singing, allowing breaks and imperfections in his delivery to remain because of the intensified, spontaneous feeling they can convey, Ascasio does what soul men do, and makes it sound as if he was born to do it.

He also writes all the band's material, showing a good ear for melodies and harnessing them to lyrics that are simple but appropriate backdrops for the real content, which is the rich feeling summoned by his singing. Barrelhouse delivers on the promise shown on "Blues on 10th 'n' Central," a cassette it put out earlier this year.

On that release, the guitars-and-drums lineup was too slender to muster a satisfying re-creation of the Memphis soul sound. For the CD, and for stage shows over the last few months, Barrelhouse has expanded to include horns and a piano.

The result is a full band sound that emphasizes crisp ensemble work while wisely keeping Ascasio's voice at the forefront. These guys aren't up to Asbury Jukes or J. Geils Band snuff as yet, but there are enough tasty elements in the playing: jangly guitar rhythms and terse, spiny lead breaks crop up; Jack Benson blows a handful of fluent, full-bodied saxophone solos. The keyboards are a bit muffled in the mix, but that can happen on an independently made, self-financed album like this one.

The Barrelhouse guitarists shine best on "Blues 'Bout Rosie," an acoustic, Delta-style blues that isn't listed on the cover but pops up as a welcome aside midway through the album. Otherwise, contrary to the title, this is a straight soul album.

Barrelhouse maintains a good mix of moods and styles: exuberant, pumping numbers with that trademark horn punctuation, plaintive, lovelorn ballads, and variations like the sultry, sashaying funk of "Natural Lover Man" and the brisk but wistful "Can't Make You (Love Me)."

The question, of course, is whether Barrelhouse can branch out and make itself something more than a zestful re-enactment of a glorious chapter from the '60s. But at a time when most contemporary R & B is an empty, puffed-up display of hormonally overheated vocal gymnastics or ultra-smooth "Quiet Storm" crooning, lovers of old-line soul won't find many better offers than Barrelhouse's invitation to go living in the past.

(Available from Barrelhouse, P.O. Box 9200-466, Fountain Valley, CA 92708.)

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