Brad Hooper got this low, got back up

Miles to go
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  August 10, 2011

ALL THE WAY FROM NORWAY Brad Hooper gets down with the blues.

There's the temptation to treat music like baseball, judging it by statistical reasoning, points for unique songwriting, tasteful production, and maybe a bonus for packaging. Then along comes a guy like Brad Hooper who confounds the numbers and gets by on the intangibles.

For his second album, Memories & Mileage, the blues-rock crooner (who spent 30 years working a printing press and being a "kitchen player" before turning to playing publicly) focuses his efforts on five new songs, then tacks on some 14 live takes from his stomping grounds, Tucker's, in Norway (all-cash bar, no Budweiser). Whether there's sense in listening to all 19 songs straight, I'm not sure, but taking just the new songs as an EP, there are some fine performances.

The opener, "Sinkin' Kind of Feelin'," is piano-fueled blues, almost dead-on Royal Albert Hall-era Clapton, with '80s-style production, where the drums are digitally crisp and the guitar tone is safely gritty. It's warmer than you might think, though, and Hooper has a good feel for subtle lead playing, emphasizing tone and emotion over number of notes. I want this messier, just because I believe Hooper's weathered voice and I want the tread on the recording to be worn as well, but the result is still highly listenable.

"Thank God for the Blues" is more Blues Traveler than blues, the harmonica and rhythm having a jam feel to it, a song that doesn't sound like it's in a hurry to go anywhere. There's a southern, Widespread Panic feel to it, too, and when Hooper tells us "if it wasn't for them blues, when I got this low, I'd have nothin' at all," it spills out of him, like it was forced from within.

Compare it sometime to Joe Walsh's "Mole in the Ground," which I'm still listening to, months later. They're nearly identical in terms of design and delivery, but draw on different branches of the same musical tree (to force a metaphor). While Walsh plies the clean chirp of short acoustic mandolin and a reserved purr, Hooper bellows out an expansive acoustic guitar and a heart-felt roar.

Heart-felt? Am I being patronizing? Is it wrong that I worried "Morgan (the Dessert Girl)" contained a typo? But, no, "she always knew how to treat," and "the fine line of her country back/Soft like rain on a sugar shack." I'm not entirely sure that makes sense — Is rain on a sugar shack soft? Or is it kind of loud and hard because of the steel roof? — but it's delivered well enough that I'm unconcerned to be reminded of "Wanted Dead or Alive."

Hooper finishes up with two piano ballads (engineer/producer Michael Rizzo on keys), the first also with Mary Flowers playing fingerpicked guitar, mixed notably higher. It's mildly troubling that Hooper is just doing the singing here (is he Celine Dion?), but "Jamie's Dive" is an honestly sincere ballad with Hooper close to a tenor and a series of verses that move the story from point A to point B, without a chorus that might have tipped the scales on this song toward cheese. Ending with zero pomp, the song is well arranged, with no unnecessary plying on melody.

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