Renée Flemings and Sal Carolei live in New York City, working in film, theatre and music: their latest musical incarnation is the funky, soulful blues band, Alias Smith & Jones, who released the powerful Hit & Run in 2020 and is now set to release a second album this year. John Mitchell talks to them both. Blues In Britain March 2023
Alias Smith & Jones – Hit & Run | Album Review
Alias Smith & Jones – Hit & Run
Self-Release – 2020
10 tracks; 42:40
Duets make for complicated musical relationships, because it pits the natural, human tendency of wanting to show off against the gentler impulse to support a colleague—even at one’s own expense. Alias Smith & Jones successfully navigate this challenge on Hit & Run, an album of comfortably familiar blues that keeps soulful harmonica and powerful vocals in harmony, allowing everyone to sparkle.
The aforementioned harmonica comes from Sal Carolei, who’s played with everyone from Eliza Neals to The Travis Miller Band. His harp work is distinctive, but also capable of bending to the will of the song, which means some performances feature a punk rock intensity, while others glide like Carolei’s learned how to transcribe the flow of a river. The vocals belong to Reneé Flemings, whose voice is bluesy but also powerful. If the archetypal blues voice is strong-yet-worn, Flemings voice sounds like it hits the gym every day.
Carolei and Flemings are backed by The Button Men, a rotating cast of bassists, drummers, and guitarists, who also share some of the spotlight, mostly via stellar guitar work. Together, it makes for a fun album with lots of charming details. For instance, on the title track, an original, the band locks into a heavy blues groove, Flemings using her lower register and Carolei playing against the beat, like a surfer paddling into an upcoming wave. Suddenly, a wild slide line comes in to take a solo. But listening closely, you realize the bluesy guitar is actually violin, courtesy of Alexander Sovronsky. It’s a cool surprise, but the song works because of the notes and emotion, and not because of unexpected instrumentation twist.
“Bad, Bad Whiskey,” an Amos Wilburn song, is one of Flemings’ best vocal performances on the album. She dramatically provides the vocal, flirting with a Broadway musical delivery, but never crossing the line. It’s because her voice has an emotional depth that keeps the song tethered to a sadness. “Gone” skips along, more rock than blues, except for Carolei’s harmonica, which meditatively rolls through the album, sounding completely natural, like he’s singing through his instrument. “Going Down the the River,” a Mississippi Fred McDowell track is the Alias Smith & Jones version of a country blues, with a hypnotic acoustic guitar riff anchoring a swirl of harp and guitar, Flemings digging deep for a vocal that’s desperate, but also sturdy, telling the listener nothing will disrupt the integrity of her singing.
The songs and performances are excellent. There’s plenty of ear candy for blues fans. In fact, if there’s one issue with the album, it’s the length. While it’s 10 tracks, there are two versions of “Long Time Child,” an extended one and an edit, meaning you’re really getting nine songs. With a band this tight, you want as much music as possible.
"This is a splendid album, with some extraordinary musicians and above all a female singer who leaves you exhausted, ten songs a mixture of blues, rock and a bit of boogie that should not catch you off guard." BLUE21.COM
Hit & Run: "..funky, raw, sultry blues...powerful, soulful...hypothermic, vocals...cutting guitar riffs, soaring harmonica solos,...A great debut mix of raw blues and soulful sound." BLUESTOWN MUSIC MAGAZINE
The happy surprise consisted in the mysterious reception of this Alias Smith & Jones opus in my mailbox. I didn't expect it and didn't expect to receive such a classic album in this way… that is to say without me not mentioning the desire to whom it may concern! Still, I have to listen to him, since he's there. And I'm telling you about it… since it's good and even very good! (which doesn't hurt anything!)
A classic album, certainly, but so well done that we can't resist telling you about it. Especially since the title of the opus is either very positively evocative, or encourages you to… run off. Presentation of the musicians, first of all, with Sal Carolei on harmonica and Renée Flemings on vocals. Add to that four different guitarists, two bassists, three drummers, a keyboardist, a violinist and a percussionist, and you have the complete line up who worked to get you this cake which is a superb slap. The Carolei/Flemmings couple composed 5 titles and you can also listen to a title by Mississippi Fred MacDowell, one by Stevie Wonder and one by Milburn and Davis. Renée Flemings is a singer with a powerful voice and such an organ supported by excellent musicians can only produce an album of excellent quality. And that is exactly what it is about here.
PARIS-MOVE, May 20th 2021
Here is a duo who knows how to make sparks and chills with only a roaring harmonica, sometimes borrowing a hint of melancholy, a powerful voice, soul and of undeniable emotional depth and a band of seasoned veterans fluctuating over tunes and according to needs and styles .. This will tell me that the only is a little undersized and that we have a solid group there constitutes, will answer you .. Indeed and worth I will add without counting that when you will have it stunned well you will not come back from it, so much that it is a ball. That said, the duo is made up of the harmonicist Sal Carolei, a guy who is over twenty years experience and who has rolled his bump everywhere and with everyone, distributing powerful and melodious trills to envy and the volcanic Renee´Flemings who was born to sing the blues, since she is equipped with a powerful voice that she manipulates with virulence without overflowing into untimely yelling... She knows how to sing! This album is the first of a long series, finally I hope given the pleasure it gives me, for our two duettists, who besides being talented and wonderfully complete, knew how to surround themselves with musicians, grouped under the name of The Button Men, monstrous with power, Jerry Dugger, Michael Hill, Paul Bauman, Jack Morer, Barry Harrison, Doc French, Michael Fox, Marc Lindahl, Will Saint, David Wasserman & Brent McLachlan. Guys just as virtuoso as their innkeepers who must be mentioned given the work they do on the album. On the CD you will find ten tunes of blues, yes! and excellent stuffing of raw groove full of incisive six-string riffs, a blues declines in almost all its forms, a ballad between funk, melancholy or melodious without forgetting boogie, swing and downright roots, a deluge of rhythms and a variety of magical sounds and tones on which the guy Sal and the girl Renne´s express without restraint worn by magical musicians. Raw blues with hints of soul and a duo that should make him!!
Blues & Co Autrement Blues June-July 2021 (FR)