Over a groove that would make the late Allen Toussaint proud, Brooks Williams sings, “I’m going to New Orleans to catch the lucky star that fell". It’s a lyric from a Walter Hyatt song and gives Williams the title for his 28th album. Lucky Star features Williams’ roots driven compositions alongside songs by the aforementioned Texas legend Hyatt, a woman known as the 'Empress of the Blues' and another from the original soul sister, known as 'the Godmother of rock and roll'.
“After You’ve Gone” first entered America’s pop consciousness via dozens — if not hundreds — of artists ranging from Fats Waller to Frank Sinatra to Fiona Apple. But it was Bessie Smith’s 1928 recording that lodged itself into Williams’ head like an ear-worm. “It’s the only version I know,” he says, “and the way she flips the heartache in the chorus from ‘I’m sad now, but you’ll be more sad later,’ is a lyric twist worth its weight in gold.” Williams’ reading of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Rock Me” is a romp built around a repeating guitar riff, much like Tharpe herself would play. Sister Rosetta is a certifiable guitar star and a recent inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And she’s also one of Williams’ guitar heroes. “She did it like no one else with her Aretha-like vocals and Chuck Berry-like guitar riffs. She well and truly rocked my world.” Lucky Star took only three days to record. There’s an exciting immediacy to the sound. “I love those old Sun and Stax records,” says Williams, “and that’s the vibe I was aiming for in the studio. No isolation booths, no overdubs, no headphones, just musicians playing songs together in a way that used to be pretty common, but isn’t anymore. It makes for exciting music.”
Part of the reason that so many of the album’s tracks were nailed on the first take is due to the band’s rapport — not only with each other, but with the music. And while Williams’ Georgia roots are in clear evidence, it may surprise listeners that the core of his band hails from Scotland. Drummer/percussionist Stu Brown and double bassist Kevin McGuire anchor the rhythmic grooves that extend across the whole of Lucky Star. The great Rab Noakes is the main backing vocalist alongside Rachel Lightbody. Special guests include pianist Phil Richardson and harmonica legend Paul Jones.
“They brought so much respect for the songs and have a real affinity for American roots music,” says Williams. “In fact,” he continues, “I’ve found it to be true throughout not only Scotland but all of Europe [Williams currently makes his home in the UK], they know our music in some cases better than we do and the more I dig into my southern USA roots, the bigger the response.” That deeper dive extends into songs like his “Whatever It Takes,” a tune that could easily be rendered as an after-hours juke joint benediction or a Dixie Hummingbirds-inflected doo-wop. Or the slinky, smoky “Here Comes The Blues.” No country blues, this, the melody has an urban sophistication and a lyric laden with blues inevitability. “Jump That Train,” inspired by the “The Beast,” whose 1,000 mile journey from southern Mexico arrives at the US border heavy laden with migrants full of as much hope as the Delta and Dust Bowl rail hoppers of a previous time. But now, as was true then, hope is over-shadowed by resignation. But the record is by no means all doom and gloom; “Bright Side Of The Blues” jumps out with the easy bounce of a man who’s finally emerged from heartbreak’s hotel. The road-tested fan favourite “Mama’s Song” has a Savoy Family sounding cajun riff that could drive a listener to the dance floor. “Gambling Man” is from the point-of-view of a jilted lover who loses out to a flashy gambler. More wry than woebegone, he notes that “the ace of spades can bring it in, but every winning streak comes to an end.” With 28 albums under his belt, Williams’ streak seems to be continuing nicely. So what motivates him to keep rolling the musical dice? “I’m looking for that song that lives long after I dance off this mortal coil. I assume every songwriter feels this way, that just maybe one of our songs or one of our arrangements will exceed the sum of the parts and achieve a universal vibe. I don't know - or may never know - if this has happened or will happen, but it is a driving force.” That’s a gamble worth taking, or a journey worth making, especially when guided by the light of a lucky star.