Music

Johnny Hoy, Paul Size, Chris Anzalone, and Jeremy Berlin make up the very popular band Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish. Photo by Ben Scott
(From left) Johnny Hoy, Paul Size, Chris Anzalone, and Jeremy Berlin make up the very popular band Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish. Photo by Ben Scott

"Film Noir Angel" by Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish

By Donald Nitchie - July 27, 2006

For the past 17 years or so, Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish have been applying a firm boot to the backside of Island audiences with their blend of roadhouse blues, rockabilly and swing, churning out deep-tradition rhythms that make even seventh-generation Yankees nod their heads despite themselves. In the course of all this, they've become a tightly-honed blues machine, and our local R&B institution. The band's latest release, "Film Noir Angel," their fifth album, is their first studio recording in eight years (they put out a live record, "In Action", in 2004). This new one contains mainly hard-rocking blues, with four Hoy originals, and songs by Bo Diddley, Little Walter, J.B. Hutto, Hank Williams, Charlie Rich (who wrote "Behind Closed Doors"), and Nashville songwriter Al Anderson.

Johnny Hoy belts out the blues at Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs. Photo by Ben Scott
Johnny Hoy belts out the blues at Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs.

The band's current lineup consists of Johnny Hoy on vocals and harmonica, Jeremy Berlin on keyboards, Paul Size on guitar, and Chris Anzalone on drums. The group hasn't had a regular bass player for years; Berlin, amazingly, does double-duty, playing solid bass lines with his left hand, and chords and fills with his right. This makes for a leaner, simpler sound, with fewer traffic snarls - something we all can appreciate this time of year. On this new record, the group is joined on several cuts by Barbara Hoy or Mike Benjamin on bass, along with Michael Dinallo and Buck Shank on guitars, giving the band a fuller sound. This is especially noticeable on "Sally Sue Brown", "Cadillac" and "Big Stacka Darlin'."

The CD begins with Johnny, a cappella, singing the slow lament "Old Black Joe": "Gone are the days when are hearts were young and gay...", kicking things off on a rueful note. Is this a nod to the graying members of the Bluefish's audience? Regardless, when Berlin's boogie-woogie left hand starts up, Johnny begins huffing and puffing like Elvis and the somber tone turns into a triumphant New Orleans second-line celebration. It's a nice shift, with Jeremy pounding the keys in the finest Jerry Lee Lewis fashion. Berlin has been with the Bluefish since 1993, and his Professor Longhair-style playing has become an integral part of the group's sound. On "Big Stacka Darlin'", Hoy's vocals and Berlin's keyboards play off each other in a call-and-response. Also worth noting are Berlin's slamming chords on Bo Diddley's "Cadillac", and on J.B. Hutto's "Hip Shakin'," the most exuberant tracks on the record. The latter includes a great Hoy harp solo, along with that signature Elmore James slide-guitar lick.

Charlie Rich's "Don't Put No Headstone On My Grave" is a showpiece for Hoy's voice, with its moments of smooth silk and then, gravel, where he dredges the guts of the song up from under his feet. I've always admired Paul Size's restrained and gritty guitar playing, reminiscent of Howlin' Wolf's great collaborator Hubert Sumlin. Listen to his tasteful intros on the title cut, "Shack In The Back," and his solo on "High Temperature." Anzalone's drumming is solid and unobtrusive throughout, whether it's a down-and-dirty blues like "...Devil" or a medium groove like "Old Black Joe." "Sally Sue Brown" has the heavy bass and drums characteristic of Muddy Waters, and Al Anderson's "All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down" is a jaunty honky-tonk shuffle. Hoy's own "Shack in the Back" reminded me of Dr. John's spooky voodoo swamp rock, and his "Film Noir Angel" is a toe-tapping stomp with heavy backbeat and soaring organ backup.

While the Bluefish have never sounded better at R&B, the band has become increasingly good at slowing things down. The stand-out cut is probably "Sloop John B," the traditional Bahamian song that everybody knows from the Beach Boys' 1966 version (or the Kingston Trio's earlier cover). The Bluefish's sparse and sweet arrangement is quite affecting, and worth the cost of the CD. Little Walter's "High Temperature" is a medium-slow blues with moody atmospherics, and beguiling organ back-up from Berlin. Their cover of Hank Williams's "You Win Again" is an imaginative, and almost unrecognizable, re-working, with a Stevie Ray Vaughn-type vamp; again, making an old chestnut sound new.

The album art is a painting by the late Vineyard artist Hank Scott of a dapper-looking fellow holding a gun in one hand and a drink in the other, while smoking a cigarette. Cards and dice orbit his head. It has the look of smoky bar rooms of yesteryear - right before the vice squad breaks down the door. And the guy even looks like Johnny.

You can hear Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish at The Ritz Cafe every Tuesday night, and at Lola's every Wednesday, throughout the summer. The band will be playing as part of the Featherstone Gallery's Musical Monday Series on Monday, August 14, from 6:30 to 8:00. Bring the whole family. Get the CD at all Bluefish appearances, as well as at retail outlets around the Island including Alley's, Aboveground Records, and Island CD. You can order them online at www.johnnyhoyandthebluefish.com.

Donald Nitchie is a writer and music aficionado. He lives in Chilmark and occasionally writes about music for The Times.