Live Review: The Shuffletones at Dazzle

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The Shuffletones Saturday, August 16, 2008 Dazzle Restaurant and Lounge Better than: Drowning your romantic sorrows in radio-friendly pop music.

The Shuffletones rely on a familiar formula, a musical equation that’s been borrowed too many times to count and that’s indelibly carved into the very character of American music. Rather than seeming hackneyed or trite, however, the band’s take on what seems like an age-old approach comes off fresh, even as it stands as a tribute to tradition and fallen musical giants.

As the house blues band at Dazzle, the Shuffletones skip between subtle stylistic approaches (Chicago, West Coast and Shuffle Blues), as they cover tunes from legendary artists like Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Slim Harpo. At its core, however, the band’s music functions on an undeniably simple and powerful arrangement -- the characteristic 1/4/5 chord structure and the emotive lyrics that have marked the genre since its inception in the nooks of rural America at the beginning of the 20th century.

The outfit’s straightforward approach to blues spotlights the most powerful elements of the genre, a quality that was on display at the Shuffletone’s Aug. 16 performance. The show saw Tom Harger stepping in for regular guitarist Jeremy Vasquez, but the personnel shift had no negative impact on the act’s performance. R.D. Jones’ steady bass and drummer Tony Hager’s driving rhythms were the canvas for consistently impressive improvisations from Ronnie Shellist on harmonica and from Tom’s multi-toned guitar. Shellist, Jones and Harger swapped turns as lead singer, and each infused the vocals with an insistent and emotive power.

The venue couldn’t have been more appropriate for the content. The band set up in Dazzle’s front room, where the stage abuts the tables and the audience’s responses become a part of the performance. As Shellist blew impossibly dense melodic lines on the harmonica, Jones sang with subtle fervor and Harger wailed, the hoots and hollers that sprung from the front tables recalled a revival camp meeting.

The band’s covers of standards like Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago,” Muddy Waters’ “Long Distance Call” and Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back” benefited from Shellist’s elastic range on the harmonica and Harger’s thoughtful, direct approach to guitar.

There was no sawdust on the floor, no smoke in the air and no bootleg rye whiskey on the menu. Nevertheless, the Shuffletones managed to evoke the golden ages of the blues, from its country origins to its development in the large metropolitan centers of the country.

-- Adam Goldstein

Critic’s Notebook

Personal bias: My weekend included an emotionally draining run-in with an ex, so the lyrical theme of “being wronged” and pained tones of the music functioned as an effective therapeutic musical salve. Random detail: Bassist R.D. Jones’ facial expression seemed painted with worry the entire show, as if he were afraid of being attacked by an unruly audience member. By the way: The Shuffletones play a set at Dazzle every Saturday night at 10:30.

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