Contemporary soul blues releases usually come out of the deep South via Malaco Records. Over the past two decades the Jackson, Miss., label has revived the careers of Bobby Blue Bland, Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton Campbell and Dorothy Moore. But local fans of music that fires up the blues with soulful singing, bright horns and timeless topics need look no further than Greensboro, where bluesman Roy Roberts lives and records. The veteran guitarist and singer has played in bands that backed Solomon Burke, Eddie Floyd and Otis Redding, to name a few. Roberts has been hot (he played on Electric Express’ million-seller, “The Real Thing”) and cold (during the disco era he worked the country music circuit playing with O.B. McClinton). Since then, Roberts has set up his own studio and label, Rock House Records, and returned to the blues.
Roberts’ latest CD, Burnin’ Love, opens with the title cut, a funky original that showcases the bluesman’s husky voice and smooth vocal style. Roberts’ singing–plusher than Little Milton’s but not as glitzy as Taylor’s–comes out of the soul bag, but never leaves the blues behind. On “Couldn’t See the Tears for the Rain,” Robert’s hard-driving guitar licks are right up front, buoyed by hefty horn lines from Rusty Smith and Scott Adair. “The Next Time,” a ballad, allows him to stretch out as a guitarist while keeping his voice soft and vulnerable. And “I’ve Got Troubles” reaches deep into the Memphis sounds of O.V. Wright, while his guitar work has the feel of Otis Rush. The good time shuffle, “Dirty Old Man,” features Bob Margolin on slide guitar and organist Skeeter Brandon, both of whom respond with raunchy solos when Roberts calls them dirty old men. For blues fans, covers of Latimore’s bedroom ballad “Let’s Straighten It Out” and Bobby Womack’s sweet “I’m in Love” add a touch of familiarity. But they aren’t really necessary because Roberts is right on target with Burnin’ Love, both as a songwriter and performer. This used to be considered chitlin’-circuit soul blues, but because of its contemporary feel, this music has now crossed over to a broader audience. In other words, Roberts belongs on the blues festival circuit.