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Heartsman a surprise; Brooks reliable

The Touch
The Touch
By Johnny Heartsman

Alligator Records: 1991

Satisfaction Guaranteed
Satisfaction Guaranteed
By Lonnie Brooks

Alligator Records: 1991

These reviews first appeared in the May/June 1992 edition of Living Blues magazine.

These two releases from Alligator are miles apart in musical philosophy. While Lonnie Brooks personified Alligator's moniker of "Genuine Houserockin' Music," Johnny Heartsman challenges the very boundaries and definitions of blues, much as Ornette Coleman did for jazz three decades ago.

Brooks' "Satisfaction Guaranteed" plies much the same ground as his earlier releases – electric, guitar-based blues notable for a blistering energy level and intensity of delivery. Brooks shares Albert Collins' hyperthyroid approach to music, if not his melodic imagination.

Fans of Brooks' earlier releases are likely to enjoy this latest outing as well. The only disappointment is the loss of young Brooks protege Osie Anderson, who has moved to Southern California to strike out on his own. But a guest vocal by Koko Taylor on "If the Price is Right" is an added bonus.

If it's inventiveness and originality you crave, though, Heartsman's album is the one to experience. His West Coast sound has a smooth sophistication coupled to a riveting passion. The Sacramento-based Heartsman (note that this isn't Johnny Hartman, the famed jazz vocalist) plays everything from flute to organ to guitar, and covers a lot of stylistic ground as well – from straight-ahead electric blues like "Serpent's Touch" through the Kansas City-flavored "You're So Fine" to the sinuous, multi-layered and jazz-influenced "Tongue."

Heartsman's sense of melody rarely fails, his voice is a too-smooth tenor that never grates, and the arrangements always swing. And if Heartsman is willing to experiment with the structure and voicing of his music, he is still one of those rare musicians whose overriding talent makes it a pleasure to listen to them play no matter the song's own strengths or lack thereof.

His organ playing is on a level with that of Count Basie or Big Jay McShann, his guitar playing is as incisive as Gatemouth Brown's, and his flute – well, you just have to hear it.

This release, by the person who must be Sacramento's best-kept secret, is one of the most exciting and interesting blues releases recently. If it is possible to wear out a CD through repeated playing, "The Touch" seems a likely candidate to be the first.