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Originally Published Janury 19, 2001
Norton Buffalo Rides Again!
Norton Buffalo & the Knockouts – King of the Highway
Here’s a name that you may not have heard of – Norton Buffalo. The man with the strange name is one phenomenal harp player, a good lyricist, and a decent singer to boot. If you haven’t heard of him before, it may be because this is his first solo release since his first two albums on Capitol in 1977 and ’78. He has been busy in between, though. In addition to recording a couple albums in the early �90s with slide guitar wizard, Roy Rogers, Norton has been a featured performer with the Steve Miller Band for the last twenty-five years. Buffalo has played on over a hundred albums by various artists. He is well-versed in many styles of music, not just the Blues. Just some of the names that he has performed with include Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Cash, The Doobie Brothers, Kenny Loggins, The Marshall Tucker Band, Juice Newton, and Elvin Bishop. (Both Miller and Bishop return the favor by each contributing a guitar solo to King of the Highway.)
His new album, while showing his varied influences of Country, Rock and Jazz, is still a fairly strong Blues album. He is not only one of the finest and most talented harmonica players in the world, he also plays some organ, trombone, and conga. Every song is penned by Buffalo except “I’m Tore Down,” and he gets help from his regular guitarist, Johnny “V” Vernazza, on the title track. (Vernazza used to be part of Elvin Bishop’s band.) The rhythm section consists of David Brown on bass, and Tyler Eng on drums. David Mathews guests on piano for nine of the twelve cuts , and Merl Saunders adds his excellent B-3 organ work on five tracks. Trumpet and sax augment Buffalo’s trombone playing on four of the tunes.
The first three tracks get things off to a promising and energetic start, before he winds things way down for the melancholy “The Odds Are Against Us.” About when you think this is getting a little too maudlin, he creeps in with a nice, expressive solo on the chromatic harp, which helps. He keeps the chromatic out for “Hoodoo Roux” next, obviously a little trip down “N’awlins” way. Lyrically and musically, it reminds me of something that Dr. John would do, with a dash of Cab Calloway thrown in for good measure.
“Sweet Little Pumpkin” has a beat and rhythm similar to Albert King’s “Cross Cut Saw,” and is the tune that Steve Miller adds his creamy sounding Blues guitar licks. “Shuffalo” is a snappy instrumental with a short slide solo from Vernazza. The “flat tire” shuffle, “She’s Driving Me Crazy,” is next, featuring a short guitar solo from Bishop. Nothing really special here, though. “Line Of Fire” slows things down again, with some more melancholy lyrics and chromatic harp. Very bluesy.
He could have probably chosen a song less oft-covered than “I’m Tore Down” to include here. The band doesn’t sound too inspired, coming off a little stiff. “Harmonica Mambo,” another instrumental, is a little livelier, as Norton gives the harp a decent workout.
Buffalo does yet another slow, sad song before closing out the album with the curiously odd “The Monkey and the Man.” He proceeds to regale us in an affected voice with a somewhat humorous, but unnecessary parable about having that ol’ “monkey on the back.”
If you are a big fan of harmonica, I think you will get some real enjoyment out of this disc, and even though Buffalo isn’t an outstanding singer, his voice doesn’t detract from the proceedings. I think in the right hands, this self-produced album could have been even better. Now if Norton and his Knockouts were to come around for a gig, I think that would be a show worth catching. They’re probably much better heard live on stage where they could really stretch out and show what they got.
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