Stony Plain 2021
From Ottawa to Toronto and on to the world with words of wisdom: Canadian blues-breaker bucks the pessimistic trend.
Not that Steve Marriner has been twiddling his thumbs since stepping on a solo route with “Going Up” back in 2007 – although what can a musician do except to move his digits? – but the process of living up to the debut’s promise saw this artist involved in various collectives rather than pursue a personal path. Still, Marriner’s return to the lane bearing his name was worth the wait, because for all the serious notions set by the half-pessimistic title of Steve’s sophomore effort, “Hope Dies Last” is so playful and punchy as to pretend to the honor of being the best blues album of 2021. It’s a rather short, if to-the-point, set of songs which may be firmly rooted in reality and referring to the pandemic period yet it’s also ready to embrace eternity.
This is why, while the funky instrumental “Uptown Lockdown” will strike a chord with a stir-crazy listener, it’s the urban buzz of “Take Me To The City” – a groovy vehicle for Marriner’s husky voice – that, wrapped in scintillating guitars and given a hypnotic harp for enhanced infectiousness, sets the tone here. But whereas “How High” shoots for honey-dripping Coverdale-isms, as Jimmy Bowskill’s six strings ooze nocturnal action, the swampy cover of Tom Petty’s “Honey Bee” acquire a voodoo quality, slider roll, honky-tonk piano and vocal harmonies adding a hypnotic layer to the piece’s swagger, and the handclaps-helped “Somethin’ Somethin'” struts its sweet, witchy stuff in an arrestingly mysterious way.
So although the acoustically tinged, twangy “Coal Mine” offers a sadder drift, and the country-tinctured, mellifluent ballad “Enough” finds Steve duetting with Samantha Martin over the safety net of purring organ and pedal steel, the effervescent “Petite Danse” lends the boogie shuffle a Francophone frivolity, and “Hear My Heart” rocks with a lot of gusto. The same could be said about the folk-informed finale of “Long Way Down” too, had its harmonica-honed minstrelsy not taken to vast fields in the search of sorrow instead of happiness before allowing orchestral uplift to bring forth joie de vivre. That’s the rhyme and reason for hope to never die at all in Marriner’s world – and, thanks to his music, in ours as well.