Blues traditionalist David (Kid) Ramos is busiest these days as a member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, but local fans know him as a longtime presence on the local roots-music scene since his '80s tenure with the James Harman Band. "Two Hands One Heart" is the Anaheim guitarist's solo debut. As a member of the New York-based Stray Cats, Lee Rocker helped set off the early-'80s rockabilly revival that proved influential on the Orange County scene. Now Rocker lives in Laguna Beach and fronts Lee Rocker & Big Blue, an emerging O.C./Long Beach roots-music band that takes a stylistically broader approach than the Cats. Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent), with three stars denoting a solid recommendation.
Lee Rocker & Big Blue
"Atomic Boogie Hour"
Stepping forward last year as a singer and bandleader after years of thumping rockabilly bass with the Stray Cats, Lee Rocker proved a pleasant surprise. His trio's first album, "Lee Rocker's Big Blue," featured strong musicianship in a wide range of roots-music styles and, from Rocker, a credible turn as a lead vocalist.
"Atomic Boogie Hour" continues along the same lines, although on continued inspection, Rocker's limitations as a singer are becoming more obvious. His voice is tuneful enough, and he does a good job of selling macho swagger (in a cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Call Me the Rocker," a natural for Rocker to adopt as an album-opening theme song) and the nervous tension of a crumbling relationship (on "Goin' Down Hard," one of the album's several catchy originals).
But Rocker doesn't have the vocal range or commanding presence of a first-class blues or R&B singer. Even as he stretches notes in the time-honored fashion, one is aware of a gap between his aim and his reach.
It would take a true heir of Otis Redding to get the most from "Memphis Freeze," a soulful, peppy new composition in the Stax style; Rocker has the spirit but not the full-bodied voice to make this high-energy lament work. "When You're Not Here," a lowdown sinner's confession derived from the Howlin' Wolf/Willie Dixon classic, "Spoonful," needs a touch of the demonic, but that's beyond Rocker's reach.
However, Big Blue's instrumental strengths pick up where Rocker's vocal limitations leave off. If the singer can't muster the sensuality needed for the sexy, seduction blues, "Take It Slow," guitarist Mike Eldred is there to provide exactly what's missing, with soloing that moves from humid, Wes Montgomery-inspired chords to insinuating, slinky, single-note runs. Supported by the crisp, flexible rhythm work of Rocker and drummer Henree DeBaun, Eldred puts the fission into "Atomic Boogie Hour."
* Lee Rocker & Big Blue and Hellbound Hayride play Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. $10. (714) 957-0600.
"Two Hands One Heart"
First released in Holland earlier this year, Kid Ramos' recording debut as a bandleader carries out the basic mission of a blues traditionalist: invigorating old forms with fresh, involved playing.
Ramos surrounds himself with a band of strong players he has worked with often in the past, and the rapport and ensemble skills pay off nicely.
Pianist Fred Kaplan's light touch and rapid, circling parts provide a nice foil for Ramos' edgy, forward-probing guitar work. Lynwood Slim handles most of the singing in a rough, amiable, comfortable style, coming off like a more tradition-steeped Huey Lewis; Janiva Magness provides a woman's point of view and smoother touch on three songs, which helps to keep things varied. While the 16 songs include compositions by such well-known figures as T-Bone Walker, Elmore James and B.B. King, Ramos concentrates on underexposed nuggets, not standard repertoire.
The fundamental strength here is Ramos and company's insistence on viewing the blues not as a collection of stylistic maneuvers to be run through like the compulsory exercises at a gymnastics meet, but as the basis for storytelling.
The core story here is the usual one about romantic and sexual ups and downs; the lyrics and singing sketch the tale, but it's the players who give each piece its special emotional spin.
Ramos solos liberally with a splendid balance of raw-toned bite and nimble accuracy, but he can be as interesting in a supportive role as he is when leading the pack. On "You Don't Love Me," an edgy, spiteful kiss-off song, his rhythm guitar chords sound like mental daggers while a saxophone solo holds the foreground.
Some of the hottest and most expressive playing comes on "Done Deal," one of two Ramos-penned instrumental pieces (the other is the acoustic, Delta-style title track). It's a dark, driving mid-tempo number in which a taut organ and Ramos' cutting guitar work speak of dire doings; it ends with a tremolo shudder that evokes a death rattle.
Ramos emerges as a tireless team player who excels in the spotlight but doesn't stop putting out honed, lively playing when he steps back and lets his partners shine. Each stroke of the guitar pick becomes a chance to add an expressive spin, and that's the kind of approach that will keep traditional blues spinning.