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Doing What He Does

Li'l Ronnie's blues get a boost on a new album.


That lingering modesty aside, other things have changed. Out of more than 130 gigs per year for Li'l Ronnie and his band, the Grand Dukes, only a handful are in Richmond. A record release event at Shenanigans March 11 is a rare chance to see them play in a local club.

On their new release, "do what'cha do," critically acclaimed Texas-based blues guitarist Anson Funderburgh is manning the controls as producer. That professional touch, and confidence born of ringing international endorsements, infuse the album with a sheen and swagger that signal a solid step forward. Other recent steps forward have included Canadian trade magazine Real Blues naming them Best U.S. Blues Band in 2003, as well as Big Bill Morganfield (Muddy Waters' son) hiring Owens to tour with him as a featured soloist.

The new album's 11 original songs, most penned by Li'l Ronnie, are typical of his brand of genre-crossing blues. There's Muddy Waters-style Chicago blues with the amplified blues harp and stinging slide guitar of "Just Like a Woman." There's the swampy Slim Harpo-styled "Wine Headed Woman." There's the relaxed retro mambo of "Love Trance," which fits Owens as naturally as his bowling shirts. And there's a standout jump blues, "Take a Chance," with guitarist Michael Dutton providing excellent vocals. Other high points include the Chuck Berry-style rocker "She Wild" and a late-night, minor-key lament, "Sugar Babe," in which Owens lays his feelings on the line. Owens tried to keep those lyrics simple and honest. "If people can't connect with those sentiments," he says, "they've never been in love."

The album was recorded in about a week's time in Ashland. Owens says that Funderburgh made a lot of good suggestions, whether it was ideas for bass parts or stating firmly that a boogie needed a piano part. "He had some tricks up his sleeve," Owens says. "He knew how to get that old sound. At the same time, he knew what we were shooting for. We're traditional, yet modern and vital. We may have gotten closer to it on this one." S

Li'l Ronnie and the Grand Dukes' record release party is March 11 at Shenanigans, 4017 Macarthur Ave. The show starts at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $7 at the door. 264-5010.

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