Like water off a duck’s back, heartache stands no chance of sticking around whenever Johnny Rawls picks up a microphone. Case in point: Walking Heart Attack. Without jagged edges, drab slogs or backstreet roughhousing, his classy, often horn embellished and ever-smooth soul-blues repel any of grief’s lingering effects. No, not even the high, hurting drama of “Trying to Live My Life Without You” can sink under the heavy load of its crushing loss. Woe becomes catharsis.
Heartbreak, in Johnny’s hands, can sound oh-so fine.
That’s because the 72-year-old singing guitarist knows how to put into play all the valuable pointers picked up from working alongside such pillars of soul music as O.V. Wright, James Carr, Joe Tex and Z.Z. “Down Home Blues” Hill. Namely, Rawls knows how to curl his voice, just so, around the tail end of a lyric to offset the sting, stringing out syllables with his Mississippi drawl for extra cushion, then floating it all on the natural lift of his phrasing. Sleek but not slick; soothing without sweet. Just right for the absolute soulful majesty required of Wright’s “Born All Over” or dropping the hammer on a two-timing cheater by way of “Tell Me the Truth.”
While down on bended knee, bleeding his heart, Rawls still sees to it that the music enveloping him stays layered, buoyant and on the move. An organ warmly purrs. The guitar flickers cleanly. Cooing backup singers second his emotion. And then there are those horns. Those bright, beaming horns. Combined, Rawls and the Rays, Catfood Records’ house band, keep moods from moping by making things twist or groove. Or strut funky, as when the title track fills in the oooh-wee! details on top of a thousand hormone-soaked words spoken by the picture on Walking Heart Attack’s cover. The gravity of “Lies,” whose overstrained relationship dangles at the end of its rope, is no match for their way of elevating weighted matters.
Then, surprise, surprise! Popping up among the blend of originals and soul covers is a didn’t-see-that-coming delivery of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.” Thematically, its tale of emotional restlessness falls right into place between the sneak-around “One More Sin” and some longingly homesick “Mississippi Dreams.”
If the blues are indeed as Robert Johnson once diagnosed as an “achin’ old heart disease,” then Walking Heart Attack comes to your rescue with a tuneful cure.
Label: Catfood Records
Release Date: 9/1/2023
Artist Website: https://johnnyrawlsblues.com/
Reviewed by Dennis Rozanski