Heartache By The Pound

Kirk Fletcher

Ogierea Records, 2022

http://kirkfletcherband.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/24/2022

Most bluesmen in the B.B. King / Albert King / Buddy Guy vein are two things: they are guitar players, and they are singer-songwriters. If we’re being honest, they’re usually better at one than the other—and the one they’re usually better at is playing guitar.

Which brings us to modern bluesman Kirk Fletcher, a gifted guitarist who handles a slow blues with a soaring solo as adeptly as a righteous funked-up stomp, and whose vocals continue to feel like a work in progress. On his latest release Heartache By The Pound, Fletcher demonstrates above all that he continues to grow as an artist, and that’s a beautiful thing to witness.

There are exceptions to the maxim noted in the first paragraph above, of course; Robert Cray is a great example of a superb blues guitarist who’s also an accomplished vocalist. This time around, Fletcher takes Cray’s example to heart in more ways than one, co-writing four of five self-penned tunes with Cray’s longtime bassist Richard Cousins and covering two others written by frequent Cray collaborator Dennis Walker. (Both men also worked with B.B. King.)

The album was mostly recorded at FAME Studios in Nashville, “the mother church for soul music” according to Fletcher, who notes “It’s the same building where all these fantastic people like Otis Rush and Aretha Franklin have recorded. I wanted the vibe.” The band he assembled for these sessions, which extended to Los Angeles as well, is extraordinary: keyboardist Reese Wynans (Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, Buddy Guy), drummer Terrence F. Clark (Robert Cray Band, Joss Stone), bass players Randy Bermudes (The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Charlie Musselwhite) and Travis Carlton (Sara Barellies, Larry Carlton), backing vocalist Jade MacRae (Joe Bonamassa, Jimmy Barnes), trumpet player Mark Pender (Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny), and saxophonist Joe Sublett (Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt). If that lineup leaves you expecting an album full of tight, powerful ensemble playing, you will not be disappointed.

The Fletcher-Cousins opener “Shine A Light On Love” rides an easygoing r&b strut, featuring punchy horn accents, gospel-tinged background vocals from McRae, and a smoking Fletcher solo over the fade. After that sunny, upbeat opening we dig into the serious-minded “Afraid To Die, Too Scared To Live,” a more traditionalist mid-tempo number with a strong Cray influence; it’s a soulful, thoughtful piece about the need to seize the moment and live fully while you’re alive, and one that Fletcher sings with genuine passion and commitment.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The title track—and third Fletcher-Cousins co-write in a row—splits the difference, offering upbeat accompaniment as Fletcher sings of “Heartaches by the pound / So easy to be lost / So hard to be found.” It pairs nicely with the Albert King-penned “I’ve Made Nights By Myself,” whose steady blues pulse closes out with an extended bee-sting guitar solo. Then they slow things down for “The Night’s Calling For You,” a slow blues that’s right in the pocket musically and tonally as Fletcher spins a tale of cheating, regret, and longing, as gentle Hammond organ in the background adds an extra measure of pathos.

The strut returns for Fletcher-Cousins co-write “Wrapped Up, Tangled Up In The Blues,” and it really suits this surging number, with McRae’s harmony vocals on the chorus adding dimension and punch. A pair of Dennis Walker-penned cuts follows as Fletcher gives the mid-tempo “Wrong Kinda Love” extra snap before easing off the gas for the airy slow blues “I Can’t Find No Love,” singing “I can’t find no love in our home anymore” over a searching, mournful guitar line.

If that sounds like it calls for a change of pace, Fletcher delivers again with a tasty cover of Tarheel Slim’s rollicking roadhouse blues “Wild Cat Tamer” (“I’m a wildcat tamer, and I’m gonna try my hand on you”) that’s pure exuberance from start to finish. Fletcher closes things out with his solo composition “Hope For Us,” a languorous, lilting blues that find him struggling through what may be the closing scenes of a troubled relationship, asking “Is there any hope for us?” Eventually the stately paced number gives way to a smoky, somewhat understated solo that builds steadily, wringing every last bit of melancholy out of the song.

Fletcher’s guitar playing throughout is world-class—every bent note and speed run full of emotion and craft, never overplaying but always giving the song his all. And if there are times when it feels like he’s still building confidence in his keening vocals, there is equally no mistaking the improvement he’s achieved there. The emotion he pours into tracks like “I Can’t Find No Love” and “Hope For Us” is compelling; he’s putting himself out there and sharing his heart with the audience, and the results are powerful. It’s also true that when you witness an artist working to get better at one particular aspect of their art, the progress they make along the way can be rewarding for both the performer and the audience. 

A five-time Blues Music Award nominee, Kirk Fletcher is only getting better year by year, an already-great guitar player who is rapidly becoming a genuine triple-threat performer. Heartache By The Pound demonstrates not just the power of blues music in the hands of an artist as talented as Kirk Fletcher, but the potential that’s always there when an artist insists on continuing to grow and refine their craft. I’m already looking forward to whatever’s next.

Rating: B+

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