Kenny "Blue" Ray
Way Down in Memphis
(Tone-King 1061)

Bless My Axe
(Tone-King 1062)

Here’s a double shot of some of the leanest, cleanest and meanest guitar licks by one of the finest purveyors of the Texas-blues tradition currently in practice. Kenny "Blue" Ray evokes the spirit of the Kings, Albert Collins and T-Bone while forging his own identity as a player of considerable chops and taste.

It’s obvious from Memphis’ opener, "Gator Ride," which showcases Ray’s snarling fret work and nimble phrasing — short, sweet and to the point. Or the appropriately titled "Let’s Party," which swings like mad in a clean, jazzy style. Check out the delicious licks displayed on "Blue" — slow and deliberate string bends in combo with wide vibrato, every drop of feeling wrenched from every note. Ray’s really got that tone thing down, running the gamut from reed-thin Tele-bite to bright, full-bodied harmonic distortion on the title track. Add all this to a penchant for quick staccato outbursts of notes, and you’ve got fully expressive guitar playing, playing that really speaks to you.

Memphis consists mostly of short instrumentals in a Texas-shuffle mode, a nice demo of consummate axmanship. The only sore spot is a tossed-off cover of "The Wind Cries Mary" stuck at the end almost as an afterthought and played as such.

Bless My Axe gets the nod as the better of the two due to its broader scope and maturity. The same harmonica-saxophone-organ combo with guest vocalist is used, but the band sounds more assured and better integrated as a whole. Kudos especially to tenor man Rob Sudduth and Louis Pain (on loan from the Paul deLay Band) on the Hammond, who play with great aplomb.

There are also more vocals on this disc, provided by either Little Danny or Charlie Chavez on chestnuts like "Reconsider Baby" and "How Many More Times," which helps the pacing. Bless My Axe seems to be sequenced better; it ends way too soon despite being 10 minutes longer than Memphis.

Ray branches out stylistically, confidently adding jazzy overtones to the mix. There’s a great rendition of Stanley Turrentine’s "Sugar," and "Cadillac Drive" features nice Wes Montgomery-inspired licks. There’s also a guitar and harp duet on John Lee Hooker’s "Maudie" that offers a nice breather. These cuts point to interesting possible future exploration for Ray and crew.

Way Down in Memphis and Bless My Axe are bookends of an excellent case study of how superior guitar tone coupled with impeccable taste and restraint equals more power and feeling. Faster and louder is not the only answer.

— Jon Martinez

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Boulder, CO, USA.