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Blues Merchants Return with Tattoed with the Blues

Blues music is tricky. We’ve all been to shows where blues artists tear through a set like nobody’s business, yet when you get home and listen to their albums their recordings don’t do them justice. Somehow the energy that comes through when a fired-up audience is on hand up just doesn’t translate to the studio.

That problem does not apply, however, to the new Blues Merchants album, Tattoed with the Blues. A five-piece Cincinnati band. the Blues Merchants formed in 2006. Tattoed is their second full-length release, and it’s clear that the excitement of their live shows also comes through on their studio recordings. The band is tight but not slick, and although the sound is polished, it still has a live-in-the-studio feel. For this we have to give some credit to Ron Esposito, who produced the record and who also, along with Bill Gwynne, helped mix it.

Something else that stands out on the record is the songwriting, which is primarily split between guitarist Chris Kepes and keyboardist Bob Nave. You may have heard Bob on the radio (WNOP and WVXU, among others), and you may have heard him in other local bands, including the Lemon Pipers, whose “Green Tambourine” was a #1 single in 1968; they also performed at Ludlow Garage. Bob slips in some nice keyboard licks on the record, and Chris Kepes is a versatile guitarist whose slide work bears special mention.

What gives Tattoed something extra is the lead vocalist Amy McFarland, who can be gutsy, sweet and sassy all in the same song. Some tunes contain a sly sense of humor that Amy conveys without sounding contrived. When things get a little funkier, as on “Just About to Creep Me Out” and her self-penned “One Swimmin’, One Drowned,” she sounds as authoritative as she does on the slow, grinding “Rolling Thunder Blues.”

The just-for-fun album closer, which happens to be (ready for this?) “Green Tambourine,” is actually pretty cool: it’s funkier than the original, and Amy McFarland manages to give the song a sultry air, which had me double-checking the lyrics for double-entrendres that I missed when I first heard it back in grade school. Now that I know how to contact members of the band, I can finally call someone up and ask how the heck they got that weird effect on the vocal, which Amy duplicates; I’m talking about the part that goes, “Listen while I play play play play/My green tambourine.” Just exactly how they done that has haunted me for decades.

CDs of Tattoed with the Blues are available at Shake-It Records and Everybody’s Records and can also be ordered through the band’s website, thebluesmerchants.com. The site also gives upcoming dates, the next one being September 8 at 8:30 pm at Taqueria Mercado in downtown Cincinnati.