Al Holliday is a 25-year-old, white, Collinsville, Illinois-bred pianist and singer who makes his debut with twelve original songs on Made It Through the Mill, Again. We might as well get the biographical information out of the way upfront, because very few of those details are readily apparent on the disc. He sings with a depth and grit and twang not usually found in the metro area, and his comfort with Chicago blues, big-band soul and barrelhouse piano shows scholarship beyond his years. His voice is just growl-y enough that listeners may write it off as a pastiche of Randy Newman, or Joe Cocker, or Fats Domino, or some amalgam of all three. It may be, but Holliday owns it and uses it to sell these familiar-sounding tunes.
The benchmark sound here is very much derived from pre-Meters New Orleans R&B, the type of stuff Dr. John might have sat in on back when he was still Mac Rebennack, session musician. The shuffling bounce of "Ool Yo' Coo With Me" is as solid of a Crescent City nod as this city has produced, down to the urban patois of the title. It doesn't hurt that Holliday supplements his East Side Rhythm Band with those omnipresent Funky Butt Brass Band horns, swelling the horn section to seven players at times. (Plenty of bands borrow the FBBB boys for some brassy pep, but this is one of the few guest spots where the styles are evenly matched. You can even hear Matt Brinkmann's sousaphone tooting along in the background.) Even without the weight of the capable horn section, Holliday hits that NOLA pay dirt more often than not, using the rudiments carved out by Cosimo Matassa and Allen Toussaint.
Every so often the band takes it back up the Delta to Memphis, as on the guitar-led instrumental "The Duck," in which guitarist Nick Cline gives some Steve Cropper-indebted licks while Holliday's murky, compressed Hammond lays back. That organ becomes a siren-song on the opening cut, "McRee Town," as it percolates and pops while the horns fall in step with the melody line. Holliday and his band recorded these tracks live, with few overdubs, at Jason McEntire's Sawhorse Studios, a ballsy move considering all the moving parts that go with a horn section this size. The payoff is audible: The in-the-room energy propels Holliday's husky pipes throughout the disc. As Pokey LaFarge's star continues to rise on national and international stages, it's easy to see a common spirit in Al Holliday. Both musicians are students and able practitioners of a form that has a set time stamp but still sounds vibrant today. With a debut this assured and alive, Holliday certainly has the capability to take this little slice of R&B and make it his own.
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