Marshfield, MA resident Anthony Geraci has recorded enough albums to know what makes for a good session; like-minded musicians who also get along. Luckily for music fans, Geraci has a boundless list of friends among some of the country’s foremost blues musicians, which is one of the things that makes his new album, “Why Did You Have To Go?” (Shining Stone Records) such a delight.
Geraci and his Boston Blues All Stars will be performing tonight at The Fallout Shelter in Norwood, as part of their Extended Play series. Geraci and his band will also be headlining Chan’s in Woonsocket, Rhode Island on November 2. He’s got a European tour and the Lucerne Blues Festival coming up after that, but he’ll be back in this area after the holidays, headlining The Spire Center in Plymouth on January 26.
Taking a look at Geraci’s musical history can be a jaw-dropping experience. A New Haven native who was playing piano by the age of 4, he fell in love with the blues and all its permutations early, and by the time he was a teenager he was sitting in with some of the genre’s biggest names. Geraci graduated from Berklee College of Music, and then went on to earn a master’s degree at Skidmore. Before long he was fronting Little Anthony and the Locomotives, a popular group that toured all over New England and featured an upbeat, funky style of rhythm and blues, rock and soul.
As the years went on, Geraci formed a close working relationship with singer Sugar Ray Norcia, and was an original (and current) member of Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, where one of his bandmates was Ronnie Earl. Those are probably the connections through which most Boston area fans know him, but a glimpse at Geraci’s recording history is even more impressive. Little Anthony and the Locomotives did two albums, he’s recorded 10 albums with Sugar Ray and the Bluetones as well as a “solo” Sugar Ray record. Geraci plays on six of Earl’s albums, and three of Monster Mike Welch’s albums. Along the way he’s been featured on three Otis Grand albums, two Kenny Neal albums, and records by Sugar Ray Rayford, Debbie Davies, John Brim, Big Jack Johnson, Zora Young, Big Walter Horton, the Radio Kings, Memphis Rockabilly Band, and the Super Harps II band.
A lot of those relationships played into the new album, which is Geraci’s fourth solo effort. It is kind of a misnomer to call them “solo records,” since the keyboard master is the consummate team player, almost shuns the spotlight, and excels at providing a scintillating melodic foundation for whatever musical format he finds himself in. The new record features a veritable reunion of the original Bluetones lineup, on about half the songs, and another handful with a West Coast group, most of whom join Geraci in a new project they call The Proven Ones. Norcia, Earl, Welch and Rayford all do guest shots, along with Evil Gal’s Michelle Willson, guitar aces Kid Ramos and Troy Gonyea, and singers Willie J. Laws, Dennis Brennan, and Brian Templeton. For rhythm sections, about half the tunes use the Bluetones’ classic lineup of bassist Mudcat Ward and drummer Marty Richards, while the rest of the songs utilize Fabulous Thunderbirds’ alumni Willie J. Campbell on bass and Jimi Bott on drums.
The music on the new record is a dazzling array of styles, proving once again how diverse and compelling the various blues forms can be. Geraci wrote the entire baker’s dozen of original tunes. The title cut is a bracing jump blues type of song, where Norcia’s vocal works over a brisk arrangement heightened by the horn section of Sax Beadle and trumpeter Doug Woolverton, and capped off by a biting guitar solo from Welch. But then Ramos and Rayford are the focal points for the bold Texas roadhouse blues-rock of “Don’t The Grass Look Greener?” Geraci uncorks some you-can’t-sit-still boogie woogie on “Fly on the Wall,” as Ramos and Laws turn it into a rollicking romp.
But as the album unfolds there are smoky love ballads like “Angelina, Angelina,” a Tin Pan Alley torch song with Willson on “Two Steps Away From the Blues,” and the buoyant New Orleans flavor of “Long Way Home,” which might convince you Fats Domino was in the house. Geraci and Laws do “Baptized In the River Yazoo” as a duet, with the singer’s haunting gospel/blues treatment framed by a Geraci stride piano melody that nevertheless manages to be introspective too. The sultry midtempo duet between Willson and Templeton on “What About Me?” is galvanizing soul music showcasing both of those superb Boston area vocalists. Brennan’s vocal on “Too Many Bad Decisions” is the perfect combination of sardonic detachment and swinging joie de vie, and his take on the rapidly paced New Orleans boogie of “Hand You Your Walking Shoes” is also colored with humor.
One of the record’s centerpieces is the nine-minute slow blues “My Last Goodbye,” the type of tune made for 3 a.m., where Norcia’s world-weary vocal is set against Earl’s emotive guitar lines, with Welch providing superb rhythm guitar, even as Geraci’s piano leads the whole melody. And then “A Minor, Affair” concludes the album with a bright, finger-popping instrumental that is surely fusion music – is it jazz, blues, or rock? – more likely a bit of all that.
Geraci seems the embodiment of that old adage that great things can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit. He’s crafted yet another remarkable record, which is also a marvelous showcase for all his pals. But like his last album, 2015′s “50 Shades of Blues,” which earned him nominations in three different categories of that year’s Blues Music Awards, as well as a nomination as Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year, the music is ultimately a testament to his vision.
I’m very fortunate to be in this area, where we have so many great musicians,” said Geraci from his Marshfield home this week. “I’ve also been out on the road so much, since the Little Anthony and the Locomotives days in the early to mid-1990s, that I know many people in the business. The players here are all part of my story. Ronnie Earl, for example, is someone people think of as just coming into the scene with his own band The Broadcasters, but before that he was the original guitarist in Sugar Ray and the Bluetones. I had actually recorded a tune with him for his last album, “The Luckiest Man.” So having people like that join me here was like one big circle we all came back to – we’re like salmon returning to spawn, except we just love to make music together.
“After 40 years in the business, that all of us can still be friends and still be playing together is really cool,” Geraci, 64, noted. “Some of these sessions we had, with Ronnie and Sugar Ray and Mudcat and Marty, it felt like being at The Met Cafe in Providence in 1978, where we got started. The music has gotten a bit more refined over the years, but we’re still doing the same thing. I’m doing more original music now, but overall it’s the same approach, and it’s just as enjoyable.”
Geraci is constantly scribbling down song ideas on scraps of paper, and he claims his piano top at home is covered with potential lyrics and song fragments. His lyrics are smart, contemporary, and often dosed with humor, and his music is always vibrant and especially appealing to dancefloor denizens.
“Sometimes the music comes first, but sometimes I just have a lot of lyrics,” Geraci said, laughing. “I used to take long walks in the woods, and even then I’d sometimes come back with phrases I’d written on pieces of tree bark. I don’t just want lines that rhyme, but something that makes sense and tells a story. I focus on emotions and imagery that heightens that, but I like my songs to be like little short stories.”
Looking back at his album’s guests, Geraci noted that Laws had been part of the pianist’s touring band, The Hip-Notics, until his own schedule became too tight, hence the change to Boston Blues All Stars, which is a moniker particularly useful on European tours. (Laws usually hosts the Thursday night blues jam at The Next Page in Weymouth, by the way.)
“I love Willie J. Laws, but he is so busy with his solo work he couldn’t continue with my band,” said Geraci. “Michelle Willson is so nice, and was one of the first ones I wanted when I was planning this album. My band for the Fallout Shelter gig will be Troy Gonyea on guitar, Mudcat Ward on bass, (Plymouth’s) Jeff Armstrong of the Delta Generators on drums, and Dennis Brennan on vocals. For my Lucerne Blues Festival gig, I’m also going to be taking Michelle and Brian Templeton, as well as saxophonist/vocalist Greg Piccolo. That’s a big event, with a lot of European promoters there, and they all want name recognition, so we’re hoping to generate more gigs in Europe off of that.”
Taking a quick look at a couple of the songs, “My Last Goodbye” and “A Minor, Affair” are especially favorites of the pianist.
“When I wrote ‘My Last Goodbye’ I knew I wanted Ronnie Earl to play on that one,” said Geraci. “But we also had Monster Mike Welch playing guitar too, and the way he backed up and supported Ronnie was amazing. I was thrilled to have them all on that cut. For ‘A Minor, Affair,’ I always loved the late 1950s-early ’60s jazz, that hard bop that was all very bluesy. I’m also known as a blues piano and organ player, so we fit that all in together in that song. Willie J. Campbell said that was the scariest tune he ever recorded, but it was a lot of fun to revisit some of my other musical roots.”
Geraci is also a major part of a new group, uniting the former Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Ramos, Campbell and Bott, with North Shore singer Brian Templeton – expect The Proven Ones to begin touring soon. Geraci has a “semi-secret” local gig too, as most Thursdays when he’s in town, he’ll be the anonymous piano player at Section Eight in Marshfield, something he relishes as a chance to just play for the joy of it.
Geraci recorded most of this album – eight tracks – as well as his 2015 record, at Quincy’s Keep the Edge Studio, and he’s a big fan of the local facility, based in the Santander Bank building.
“I heard about this new studio, founded by a young guy who’d just graduated from Berklee, named Keith Asack,” Geraci explained. “I checked it out, and liked it a lot. It is very modern, very neat, and has a great piano. ’50 Shades of Blue’ was done there, and most of this one.”