Attention-grabbing contemporary blues acts — bands that really encourage listeners to pull classic albums out of rotation — can be hard to find. Fair or not, it usually takes something special to pique my interest; exceptional tunesmithing and musicianship, a unique instrumental lineup, or a sound that draws from diverse traditions. Blues and Trouble, the new album from Kansas City-based Grand Marquis, manages to score on all three counts. By contrast to the six-string foundation of most modern blues acts, the sound of Grand Marquis is rooted in its brass players — Bryan Redmond on saxophone (and lead vocals) and Chad Boyston on trumpet. Bass player Ben Ruth even takes up the sousaphone in a throwback to the pre-electric days of Dixieland swing (perfect counterpoint to the washboard rhythm of drummer Lisa Mackenzie). The group’s sound does justice to the rich blues and jazz history of Kansas City, a musical crossroads often unfairly eclipsed by glitzier northern metropolises.
The title track conjures images of a smokey basement speakeasy, with horn solos traded over a loping bass line. “The Jungle” swings like a mofo; Redmond’s lounge-inspired vocals lend a prohibition-era gangster vibe throughout. Guitar players should take note of Ryan Wurtz, who transcends blues cliches with Charlie Christian-esque lead tones and superb comping. His slide playing provides a menacing atmosphere behind “Easy to Be the Devil,” a slow-burner that suggests the eclectic stylings of T-Bone Burnett or Tom Waits. The only criticism of Blues and Trouble worth noting is a sometimes muddy recording mix (particularly on the low end), but that’s just a good excuse to return to the studio and record a follow-up — something I’ll be looking forward to from Grand Marquis.