Graded on a Curve:
Boz Scaggs,
A Fool to Care

Everybody remembers Boz Scaggs. He’s the blue-eyed soul and blues man whose 1976 LP Silk Degrees sold like six bazillion copies, going 5x multi-platinum in the process. There was no way of getting away from such songs as “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle,” both of which were so infectious you didn’t mind having them stuck in your head. But the world never stops turning, and as it did so most of us lost track of Scaggs, who may not have struck pop gold until our bicentennial year but who got his start as a guitarist and vocalist on the Steve Miller Band’s first two LPs, both from 1968.

Me, I didn’t even know if he was still out there recording LPs until, by pure happenstance, I heard his take on the Band’s lovely and melancholy “Whispering Pines” from 2015’s A Fool to Care on the radio, and it blew me away. He duets with Lucinda Williams on the tune, and together they actually achieve the impossible—namely, dish up a version every bit as touching as the Band’s, on which Richard Manuel delivered a stunningly emotional performance. And I couldn’t believe this was Scaggs, because his version is more country than soul, and I knew when I listened to it that I just had to hear Scaggs’ latest LP to catch up on what he’s been doing.

The answer, on A Fool to Care, is a bit of everything. Blues, country, ’50s rock and roll, Curtis Mayfield covers, Al Green disco soul, you name it, it’s right here on A Fool to Care, and the only question that remains is whether he tries to touch too many bases on one LP. Me, I think he pulls it off. From his soulful take on Al Green’s “Full of Fire,” which sounds like it could have come straight off Silk Degrees, to his rootsy blues performance on the herky-jerky “Rich Woman,” he draws you in; the same goes for his vocal antics on the 1950s country/rockabilly number “I’m a Fool to Care” and his rollicking take on Huey “Piano” Smith’s “High Blood Pressure,” which is a pure pop treasure and features some great, great piano by Jim Cox. And then there’s the pure Philly soul of “Love Don’t Love Nobody,” a slow dancer of a song on which Scaggs proves he can croon as well as anybody.

His collaboration with Bonnie Raitt, “Hell to Pay,” is nothing less than a blues miracle; this is pure swamp jive, with a bottom as big as a river barge and the duo singing both together and separately while Raitt keeps things sizzling with her slide guitar. And it’s a thousand miles away from the beautiful and piano-driven “There’s a Storm a Comin’,” which is a slow and haunting tune from the Frank Sinatra school, that is with the exception of the wondrous steel guitar of Paul Franklin and the pump organ of Cox, which lend the song an alt-country undercurrent. And from there he moves on to Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud,” on which he goes all blue-eyed soul, just as he does on the syncopated and slinky “I Want to See You,” on which his vocals are smooth as anything you’re ever likely to hear on Beale Street, and which boasts an exotic feel thanks to the bandoneon of Seth Asarnow and percussion of Steve Jordan.

The LP has a few weak moments; Scaggs’ take on Rick Danko’s “Small Town Talk” lacks the original’s verve—Scaggs plays it so low key it practically disappears. That said, Scaggs’ vocals are spot on, just as they are on “Last Tango on 16th Street,” an atmospheric number, heavy on the bandoneon, exotic percussion, and a big horn figure which, while you may like it, is a bit too contrived for my tastes.

It just goes to show you—never write a guy off. Scaggs has been putting out cool album after cool album since he fell off the pop radar screen at the end of the seventies, but if an album drops in the woods and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer is that I’m sure he’s had an ardent fan base all along; I just wasn’t hip to what was going on. But now I know, and I’ve got some catching up to do. And that’s the sad, sad truth, the dirty lowdown.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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