“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.

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