It's hard to think of another Cleveland band that's been consistently active in the area as Blue Lunch. Formed 25 years ago by versatile singer-guitarist Bob Frank, the eight-piece group has purveyed a spicy stew of blues, swing, jazz, R&B and early rock 'n' roll since the mid-'80s. There have been personnel changes, of course, especially in the horn section. But the core — including Frank, bassist Ray DeForest, keyboardist Mike Sands, trombonist Rob Michael and vocalist/harmonica player Pete London — has remained stable for well over a decade.
After so many years playing retro-style music, you'd think the band might be getting stale. Nothing could be further from the truth. And it looks like 2010 might be an especially rejuvenating year for Blue Lunch. Not only were they picked in a competition in October to be the Cleveland Blues Society's entry in the respected International Blues Challenge in Memphis later this month, they will be going there with a brand-new release in their merch case.
Sideswiped is the band's fifth album and their first since 2004's Big Sound Blues. All have been released on Wilbert's label, and fittingly, they'll have their release party at Wilbert's this weekend. Sideswiped demonstrates the band's seemingly limitless ability to freshen up '40s and '50s dance-music styles. Such seasoned musicians with stellar chops often produce technically admirable music that sounds rote. Not so here. The band applies a light and lively touch to jaunty novelty tunes like "Monkey Hips and Rice" and the Ernie K-Doe classic "Mother-in-Law," swings with aplomb on "Too Much Boogie" and injects the old-school R&B of "Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday" with the requisite fervor.
Sideswiped also contains more of Frank's own tunes than previous CDs. Instead of three or four, there are seven of his compositions, including the title instrumental, the sharp jump blues "Which Way to Go," the big, sexy, urbane blues of "My Baby Knows Lovin'" and the after-hours, Tom Waits-ish "All Things Come."
"There are things I wanted to do musically that you can't do through cover tunes," says Frank. "Sometimes I'd hear something I wanted to do, and I'd go looking for a song that had that. Eventually, you realize it's easier to write your own song. I like to write songs for specific purposes. We needed a New Orleans kind of tune — something medium tempo and dance-y with a New Orleans feel. So I wrote something like that. It's hard work but it's satisfying work. The world doesn't need another version of 'Stormy Monday.'"
Frank says he's excited about the chance to showcase in Memphis and show the world what Blue Lunch are doing.
"There isn't anybody in the country who does all the different things we do or hopefully does them as authentically and as well," he says. "I go on the website of the International Blues Society and there are 212 bands in the contest. But no one does all these different styles from bebop to blues — and every kind of blues. The only band that ever did what we do is Roomful of Blues and not at the same time."
Frank describes the band as "like a bowling team — middle-aged guys that get together to play music and have a great time." The lineup includes a retired Case Western Reserve professor, a kosher-foods salesman, a music-store owner and a 29-year programmer for Young Audiences (Frank himself). Yet they're undaunted by the changing climate in the music industry and new methods of music distribution. Frank says they're eager to take it on.
"The way the business environment is, we just have to work harder than everyone else," he says. "I finally got the stuff on iTunes; we're signing up with all these online things. And Pete and I are working on it together. It's nice to have more than one person in the band out there doing things."