The Wayne Riker Gathering – R&B Thunder
8 songs – 29 minutes
Wayne Riker has a stellar reputation as a guitar teacher and the author of a multitude of guitar instructional books. He has also produced 12 CDs under his own name as well as playing in over 50 different groups over the last five decades.
R&B Thunder is Riker’s latest release and is an interesting project, in that he has assembled a hot-shot band of San Diego musicians (comprising Stu Shames on keyboards, John Simons on bass and Walt Riker on drums) and then had them back nine different vocalists on a variety of well-known R&B standards. The result is a short (less than 30 minutes) but enjoyable eight song album, primarily as a result of some superb vocal performances.
The opening track, Etta James’ “Tell Mama” comes roaring out of the traps with an incendiary vocal performance from Sharifah Muhammad. Riker’s smoothly distorted guitar enjoys a call and response with Muhammad in the fade out. Shelle Blue then takes on Ruth Brown’s “As Long As I’m Moving”, which misses the swinging horns of Brown’s original, although Shames’ piano solos are great fun as he and Riker swap solo choruses.
Janis Joplin’s “Half Moon”, sung by Michele Lundeen, benefits from not having the muddy production of the original and Lundeen really gets into the meat of the song, with an appropriate edge of desperation to her delivery, an edge that is neatly echoed in the opening notes of Riker’s guitar solo.
David Mosby’s deep bass voice emphasizes the gospel roots of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”, with a beautiful a capella ending, while Amy Winehouse’s “Stronger Than Me” (with Whitney Shay on lead vocals) subtly moves the song away from the electronic beats of the original to focus on the song’s melody and the reggae grooves that underpin the track. Riker’s ending solo is superb.
Rachel Gould and Chet Baker’s version of “All Blues” is given quite a busy instrumental interpretation under Leonard Patton’s lovely vocal, while Leona Lewis’ “Thunder”, sung by Deanna Haala, is played relatively faithfully to the original, albeit with the piano more to the fore on this version.
Christine Hewitt and Janet Hammer add backing vocals to a number of tracks and also take turns as lead vocalist on the album’s final track, “Dancing In The Streets”, with Shames’ keys mimicking the horns of the original. Each of the nine vocalists featured on the album takes a few lines on the song, as does Riker himself briefly. There are also some neat lyrical updates to the track to reference San Diego.
R&B Thunder was well-recorded by Cedrick Courtois at Studio West in San Diego and there is a palpable sense of enjoyment from the various singers. No doubt recording the album was a lot of fun. Where there is a question mark is over who the album is aimed at. The songs are superbly played and sung, but they are all well-known standards and played relatively faithfully to the originals. With this much talent on display, it would have been great to have heard some new material, or a radical re-interpretation of at least one of covers.
That being said, the vocal performances themselves are worth the price of admission, particularly Sharifa Muhammad, so even as a simple introduction to some of the vocal talent of San Diego, this album is worth a listen.