Atomic Road Kings – Clean Up The Blood | Album Review

Atomic Road Kings – Clean Up The Blood

Bigtone Records

12 songs – 39 minutes

Big Jon Atkinson is a relatively young blues artist with musical sensibilities that sit squarely in bygone eras, so it’s no wonder that the debut recording he’s made with his all-star band, The Atomic Road Kings, turns back the clock in a stylish, pleasant way.

All but one of the tunes here are fresh and original, but they’re recorded old-school – captured live and in mono to tape on analog equipment dating to the ‘50s.

Born in Florida but based out of Bristol, a town situated on both sides of the Tennessee-Virginia border, Atkinson established The Road Kings in 2012 in partnership with harmonica player Eric “Jailhouse” Von Herzen, best known for his extensive work with the pop/rock powerhouse Social Distortion.

Their first-call rhythm section is composed of upright and electric bassist Bill Stuve (Rod Piazza’s Mighty Flyers, Candye Kane and dozens of others) and percussionist Malachi Johnson (Kim Wilson and Johnny Tucker). Adding to the mix are guitarists Scot Smart, Danny Michel and Tony Delgado, who trade off with Atkinson on rhythm and lead, and West Coast powerhouse Robert Welsh (Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio), who sits in on piano for one cut.

Atkinson penned 10 of the 12 cuts, handles all the vocals and delivers lead and rhythm guitar on four songs each with Scot Smart, Danny Michel and Tony Delgado also sharing in six-string duties. The themes primarily deal with the underbelly of romantic relationships with occasional commentary about living in this modern world.

Michel’s lead kicks off the slow-blues, stop-time opener, “I’ve Got Time,” which sets the mood as it delivers a wry view of a prison sentence – with Big Jon knowing he deserves it, knows it will do him good, regrets the separation from his family and realizes the stretch could have been far worse than what he received.

“Rumors” — the realization that a relationship is teetering on the edge because the singer’s lady believes the truth in the lies – is up next, putting Atkinson’s powerful pipes on display and providing Von Herzen plenty of space to stretch out on the reeds. The action heats up for “In Arms Reach,” a plea for reconsolidation that hints of B.B. King’s “Little By Little” before taking off in its own direction, and the rocker “Have Your Way,” the painful realization that the singer’s drug use is putting his love affair in jeopardy.

Von Herzen’s harmonica propels “My Way Back Home,” which has the feel of a ‘50s train song, before the haunting slow-blues title cut, “Clean Up The Blood,” which relies on sanguine imagery as it describes more romantic heartbreak. “Candy Man,” written by Von Herzen, brings the suffering to a momentary end as Big Jon sings about his prowess as a lover.

“Ain’t For Me” quickly offers up a complaint about the way a lady’s been acting, a statement that’s driven home in the lilting shuffle, “You Got To Change.” The only cover in the set, the traditional “Two Sided Story,” swings like a pendulum before Welsh joins the action for the slow and funky “Vibrations,” which finds the singer tired of suffering in another bad relationship. The disc closes with “Back Down South,” a vow to leave troubles behind and return home.

Sure, the themes here are grim, but there’s real beauty in what Atkinson and his cohorts have conceived. The musicianship is superb, and the tunes would fit comfortably in the ‘50s, an era in which the blues painted far more grim pictures than you’ll find here. Available through the Bigtone website.