“Gonna Die Tryin’ is full of first-rate musicianship”

Our lat­est album gar­ners this acco­lade and more from review­er Mar­ty Gun­ther, in the lat­est issue of Blues Blast Mag­a­zine. Here’s a reprint of the full review:

Vet­er­an New York singer/harmonica player/guitarist Chris O’Leary is a tal­ent­ed, down-to-earth blues­man who speaks from his heart, and that’s clear as a bell for Gonna Die Tryin’, his lat­est imprint on the Amer­i­can Show­place label.

A true Amer­i­can hero who spent sev­en years in the U.S. Marines, O’Leary’s approach deals dif­fer­ent­ly from many harp play­ers on the scene today. After his dis­charge, he spent six years as front man for Lev­on Helm’s band, The Barn­burn­ers, record­ed with Hubert Sum­lin and Bill Per­ry. He deliv­ers straight-ahead blues with a mod­ern feel, aid­ed by horns, which take his sound to anoth­er lev­el while giv­ing him space to deliv­er his ample vocal skills.

This is Chris’ fourth release since suc­cess­ful­ly mak­ing his debut as a solo record­ing artist in 2010 with Mr. Used To Be. That album earned the 2011 Blues Blast Music Award for best New Artist Debut Release. O’Leary’s most recent work, Live At Blues Now!, was a 2015 BBMA nom­i­nee for Live Album Of The Year. He’s backed here by his reg­u­lar align­ment of Chris Vitarel­lo (gui­tar), Andy Stahl and Chris DiFrancesco (tenor and bari­tone sax­es), Matt Ray­mond (bass) and Jay Devlin (drums). They’re aug­ment­ed by Bruce Katz on keys, Vin­nie Nobile on trom­bone and Willa Pan­vi­ni McCarthy and Lib­by Cabel­lo on back­ing vocals.

All of the mate­r­i­al here is orig­i­nal, and O’Leary writes about what he knows, some of it humor­ous, some reek­ing with images of the bat­tle­ground, as he paints a clear pic­ture of life in 21st Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. Dur­ing the Viet­nam era, it wasn’t unusu­al for a blues artist to record songs about the hor­rors of war. Today, how­ev­er, O’Leary is in the minor­i­ty as he describes cur­rent war­zones and their effect on valiant folks who serve.

A catchy riff from Vitarel­lo, who’s stel­lar through­out, intro­duces “Can’t Help Your­self,” the first cut, the sto­ry of Bay­onne Bob­by, a tat­tooed ne’er-do-well who’s vowed to set­tle down with a good woman and make his moth­er proud. Despite his efforts, how­ev­er, he sim­ply can’t get out of his own way. O’Leary sug­gests it’s time to stop try­ing to be some­one else, fin­ish­ing the num­ber with an elec­tri­fy­ing harp solo that stops just short of dis­tor­tion.

“19₵ A Day” fol­lows with a lyri­cal­ly rapid-fire take on one of the biggest com­plaints work­ers deal with today: com­pa­nies out­sourc­ing labor to places where folks will toil for the mea­ger wages of the song’s title. The mil­i­tary theme makes its first appear­ance with ref­er­ences about the gov­ern­ment turn­ing its back on dis­en­fran­chised vet­er­ans who find them­selves being shut­tled from one agency to anoth­er, unable to secure jobs, unless elec­tion time is near and politi­cians actu­al­ly do some­thing to help in order to sway votes.

“Hook, Line And Sinker,” a love song deliv­ered with a Mem­phis feel backed by the horn sec­tion, fol­lows before the theme dark­ens once more. “Gonna Die Try­ing” pro­vides a funky, hor­rif­ic view of bat­tle using Sam­son vs. the Philistines for imagery before it evolves into visions of men with guns who have Satan in their ears spurring them on for more blood­shed. He’s got “the rules of engage­ment and the worst of inten­tions,” O’Leary says, and “there’s a razor-thin line between right­eous­ness and dyin’.” The theme con­tin­ues with “Let­ters From Home,” a sev­en-minute slow blues opus that details the pow­er of receiv­ing mail and phones from loved ones when at the front line.

“The Dev­il Drove To Town In A V8 Ford” and “The Machine” are both clever, per­co­lat­ing blues. The first depicts the bat­tle between good and evil with rich visu­al metaphors, the sec­ond being trapped in the pit­falls of every­day work­ing life. O’Leary puts his harp skills on dis­play for the care­ful­ly con­trolled “Walk­ing Con­tra­dic­tion,” which describes a woman who nev­er ceas­es to amaze, before “Har­vest Time,” a love song with a funky South­ern feel and lush horn arrange­ments. The lop­ing “One More Sat­ur­day Night” fol­lows before “Tell It To Me Straight” brings the disc to a close.

From the descrip­tion of the songs above, you’d think that O’Leary’s basi­cal­ly a hard-edged Marine, but don’t be fooled. He’s real­ly a softy at heart. He ded­i­cat­ed the album to his new­born son Jack­son, and the pair are depict­ed in a tru­ly heart­warm­ing image in the pack­ag­ing.

Gonna Die Tryin’ is full of first-rate musi­cian­ship through­out, and O’Leary’s band is def­i­nite­ly a group on the rise. But it’s the mate­r­i­al that tru­ly shines. Avail­able from Ama­zon, iTunes or direct­ly from the label’s web­site. I’m def­i­nite­ly going to set this album aside for the end of the year and future award con­sid­er­a­tion.