by Ardis Hedrick
The Trail’s End Saloon in Oregon City moved to the intersection of Beale Street and Motown Avenue for one night only last
month. On Friday the 15th of December, friends, fans and followers gathered there to celebrate the release of the first CD
recorded by Big Al Carter. Titled Soul Blue, the album’s artwork features street signs depicting just such an imaginary, idealized
intersection; the musical product itself sounds and feels like that is exactly where it might have been recorded. This evening, Big
Al and friends took to the stage to deliver the finished product, live and in-person, and to declare Oregon City the area’s newest
crossroads for blues and soul.
Carter is a recent addition to the blues entertainment field here in the Pacific Northwest. Calling himself an escapee from Silicon
Valley, he previously sang with cover bands there, but played no originals. Now Carter, both alone and in cahoots with local
guitar virtuoso Robbie Laws, has penned some originals and showcases them on the CD and during his live show.
One of the first things that might be noticed about this interesting performer is that Big Al is a sharp-dressed man. He’s large and
in-charge and onstage he is clearly the consummate director. The man has a 50,000 watt smile, a manic Cheshire cat grin that
dominates his face whenever he’s on stage. That smile says it all, really. PE Editor Bonnie Carter made the comment that even if
he couldn’t sing, the man would still be entertaining. He has a knack of being able to hold the crowd in the palm of his hand with
a velvet touch that grips them in a very intense way.
Big Al Carter is an enigma—a mystery wrapped in a riddle with a soft, nougat center. Executive by day, blues shouter
extraordinaire by night, this CIO of a Logistics company has two sides that couldn’t be more diverse, yet he seems to have
merged them into one mind-bogglingly consummate entertainer.
On how he does it, Carter says he treats his band like a business, but allows his other side to get down and have fun with it. It’s
completely clear that he is totally in his element and having the time of his life. Carter consciously hires the best executives for
his company (band), from the key players on the CD and in his stage band right down to the rest of the staff. Team Big Al is a
family affair: son John worked the sound board and daughter Natasha was selling his CDs at this gig.
Happily, Big Al’s family spills over into the community. There to support him and celebrate the CD release was Cascade Blues
Association secretary Kiki (Stephanie) Diaz and her husband. Both the Diaz’s are obviously rabid fans and Kiki took it upon
herself to provide this writer with a copy of Soul Blue, stating emphatically that she knew “Big Al would want you to have it.” That’
s just the sort of thing you would expect to happen at a Big Al gig!
For this night’s second set, the group trotted out that old chestnut Mustang Sally and turned it into an audience participation
number—“ride, Sally, ride!” To say it was a crowd pleaser would be putting it mildly. T-Bone Shuffle featured a hot-hot-hot piano
from keyboardist Ken Brewer.
Next, blues singer Rae Gordon got up and did two duets with the band, including the sublime John Prine tune, Angel from
Montgomery, popularized by Bonnie Raitt. Carter held back and played harmonica and sang the chorus lines with Gordon, which
brought some special moments to the show. It was Goose Bump City when Gordon cut loose, one of those moments when the
phrase “the crowd went wild” was totally apropos. Gordon is a dimpled diva, referred to as Sweet Ms. Thang by Robbie Laws
who laid down some serious lead guitar action.
They say that cooking is chemistry and when this band got to cooking, the results were a very tasty musical menu. These guys
are seasoned pros who play together like they have done so for ages. Each musician is energized by their righteous
appreciation of the other players’ talents and it shows.
Since it was that time of year, the band threw in a couple of Christmas tunes including Blue Christmas, made immortal by Elvis
Presley. Man, that was fun! Carter proceeded to strap on a beautiful acoustic guitar for the oft-covered Stand by Me. Just when
you thought it couldn’t be done again with any originality, along comes Carter and company with a heartfelt rendition that sounds
just as tight live as it does on his CD.
The Thrill is Gone garnered rapt audience attention. It featured a keyboard solo by Brewer that caused the audience to applaud
and a lead solo by guitar master Robbie Laws that nearly brought tears to the crowd’s eyes. Next, Carter again strapped on his
git fiddle (as this writer’s dear-departed daddy would have referred to the wide-bodied, full-sounding instrument) and got down to
a jump jive number that infected the crowd with dance fever. At the end of this number, an appreciative fan bellowed out at full
volume, “You guys rock!” This writer couldn’t have said it better.
If you find that you just can’t make it to a Big Al concert, pick up a copy of Soul Blue. Granted, you won’t get the full-spectrum
effect that you might at one of his live shows, but you will still have a reasonable facsimile to tide you over to the next live event.
For his debut, Big Al has surrounded himself with some of the finest blues artists the region has to offer. The core band includes
virtuoso Robbie Laws on lead guitar, Ken Brewer on keys, drums by Drawback Slim and five-string bass by Sonny Boyardee.
They were all there to back-up Big Al at the Trail’s End CD release bash. Guest artists on the CD are plentiful and include Paul
delay, Jeff Barnes, Greg Earl and others.
The first cut on the CD is the Robbie Laws tune Movin’ On, from Laws’ River City Blues CD. It presents as a mournful number
with effective acoustic lead and slide work. Carter’s harmonica is the perfect addition to the pure, clear sound of this very
Robert Johnson’s Walkin’ Blues is second, with Laws’ great guitar slide work in the tradition of the master. Guitar, bass, piano
and voice are interwoven into a very tight little blues symphony. As for the vocals, Carter bites into each syllable and spits it out
Beale Street Boogie is a sweet little shuffle co-written by Laws and Carter. If this catchy riff doesn’t make you get up and dance,
it’s time to check your pulse! Hopefully this is just the start of a songwriting collaboration that will bear plenty of juicy fruit in the
future. In fact, the two plan to write and go back into the studio together in the next year. Carter respects Laws as a talented
writer and it is obvious that Robbie Laws’ mentorship of Big Al Carter is spurring the latter musician to new heights in his second
career. He might not be considering quitting his day job yet, but Big Al Carter is definitely blazing some new trails here.
Wilbur Harrison’s classic number Kansas City perfectly suits Carter’s style. Upbeat, irreverent, unapologetic—it’s a welcome
addition to this eclectic CD. In Vacant Chair (dedicated to friend Elijah Matthews), Carter writes of the pain of loss in a poignant,
palpable manner. The exquisite guitar work has the same quality as the haunting zither from the legendary theme for the 1940s
film The Third Man. The background vocals are a little overdone and corny, but they suit the subject matter.
The traditional, unaccredited tune Sportin’ Life, another widely-covered song, features some outstanding acoustic work and a
dynamite piano line. Reminiscent of the folk artist Steve Goodman’s style, it’s three minutes of sheer ear pleasure. Carter
borrows Highway 49 from Howlin’ Wolf, an artist who Big Al seems to be channeling at times with his unique, gruff voice, his
harmonica playing and his snazzy dress. Well, if you are gonna borrow, why not borrow the best? This one features an awesome
sax accompaniment by George Shinbo.
The all-star musician line-up on the CD is actually becoming Carter’s regular back-up band. Again, Carter focuses on hiring the
best and the brightest. Robbie Laws’ toe-tappin’ River City Blues spotlights more sax prominently and is so catchy that the tune
gets stuck in the CD changer of your mind.
Carter says he wants to create his performances as “events,” not just your average weekly gig. So far he’s doing a great job of
that. Per the promo letter in advance of this appearance, Carter “puts on a REAL high energy show.” That might just be the
understatement of 2006! Be sure to keep your eyes open for future bookings for Big Al Carter and friends. You’ll kick yourself if
you miss one. (See ad and Bandstand.)