Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers
Tough and Tender
Tone-Cool 1165A
If you're enough of a blues fan to be reading this magazine but don't know about Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, then you're last name must be Van Winkle. The Flyers have been one of the top live blues acts on the planet for two decades or more, and Rod Piazza, a genuine innovator on his instrument, is perhaps the most emulated harmonica player this side of Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II.

That said, Tough and Tender is, remarkably, the band's first studio album in five years, following Black Top releases Blues in the Dark (1991) and Alphabet Blues (1992). The band also released the enormously entertaining Live at B.B. King's, Memphis in 1993 on Big Mo, and some of Piazza's 1980s work as frontman and sideman on the independent Murray Brothers label has resurfaced.

To put it another way, this band has received five consecutive Handy nominations for Blues Band of the Year since their last studio album! Perhaps Tone-Cool, which is distributed by Rounder, will have the marketing punch that Piazza's predecessor labels have lacked, because this band should never go five years again without a new studio release.

Piazza -- who will turn 50 about the time you read this -- has told me in past interviews that two key things he strives for as a musician are (1) to have a distinctive style and character and (2) to be larger-than-life. When last in the studio, on Alphabet Blues, Piazza had observed a growing number of players following in his footsteps, going for the fat harp tone that had become his trademark. He responded, consciously, by shifting gears to a relatively lighter, more airy sound.

On Tough and Tender, the pendulum has swung the other way. Piazza's tone is as big as California. A fat, dirty sound, darker than you're probably used to, it's distinctive and undoubtedly larger-than-life. Listen to the minor-keyed "Quicksand" for the pure drama of Piazza's solo, and you will know what it means for a musical instrument to wail.

This also marks the first recorded appearances for two new members in the Flyers camp. Guitarist Rick "L.A. Holmes" Holmstrom replaced Alex Schultz in 1995. He brings a more diverse, chameleon-like quality to the group. On several cuts he's locked in on the definitive Junior Watson/Flyers guitar tone (early '50s swing guitar with the treble rolled way off). On "Under the Big Top" Holmstrom characterizes what Chuck Berry might sound like with that tone. On others, however, such as "Quicksand," his tone and attack -- lots of bite and vibrato -- are decidedly more West Side (Chicago, that is) than West Coast.

In addition, Steve Mugalian has replaced Jimi Bott on drums. The band doesn't miss a beat (sorry), although Bott may have been slightly more flamboyant on Honey Piazza's showcase piano boogies. Compare the twisting, turning instrumental "Hang-Ten Boogie" to the Jimi-and-Honey romps "Buzzin' " (from Blues in the Dark) or "The Stinger" (from the live album) for an example. Speaking of Honey, she gets plenty of spotlight time, including a remarkable 108-bar break on the title track, as well as "Hang-Ten Boogie." Tough and Tender also features tenor saxes on a couple of tracks, the first time Piazza has recorded with horns since the late '60s.

Still, despite this versatile, ridiculously gifted supporting cast, the final burden -- to be distinctive and larger than life -- is Rod Piazza's. No problem. Who else would have the cojones to hold a wavering intro note for 20 seconds, rumbling like a hot rod engine at idle, as he does on "Blues and Trouble"? And when you hear that suspended, syncopated intro on "The Teaser," you know you're in for another trademark Piazza instrumental, full of surprises, with Piazza in total command. Sit back and enjoy it, and buy enough copies so that it doesn't take five years before the next one comes around.

-- Bryan Powell

This page and all contents are © 1998 by Blues Access,
Boulder, CO, USA.