Albert Lee has been plying his wares for some 40 years now, so you’d think that most people would know of him. But Lee, who has worked with a who’s who of musicians, seems equally content when the spotlight is on someone else and he just plays to the side. Lee has recently found himself performing with former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman has part of his Rhythm Kings ensemble, but that work pales compared to when Lee is left to his own musical devices. His new album Road Runner is more of the same blending of rock, country, folk, and blues, with the title track starting off like it’s going to be some semblance of a slow, bluesy ditty before Lee changes direction with a rockabilly feel and toe-tapping, Knopfler-ish vibe. Lee reels off a string of nice, intricate licks while Don Heffington keeps the beat going swimmingly on drums and Buddy Miller adds harmony vocals. It’s rare that a song written by the team of Holland-Dozier-Holland would be able to go down this path, but Lee nails it from start to finish.
On this record, Lee takes a lot of covers and melds them into his own, but he is seemingly at home when he goes the country-folk-blues way, as he does with the run-of-the-mill, pedal-steel and piano-accented “I’ll Stop Loving You”. Here, Lee sounds like he went from some Nashville studio to record it, only to change his mind and opt for a nearby saloon. Again there is a nifty bridge, albeit rather fleeting before Lee heads for the song’s polished yet still somewhat meandering homestretch. Just as pleasing but far from jaw-dropping is his cover of John Hiatt’s “Rock Of Your Love”. While not bringing that distinct earthy nature that is so ingrained in Hiatt’s pipes, Lee still manages to make the most of the tune, resulting in a light but appealing number with pedal steel guitarist Buddy Emmons playing more of a prominent role. The lone problem might be how it stops without much of a nice, final expanded coda as it fades out.
From there, Lee’s version of Leo Kottke’s “Julie’s House” is more of a folksy, singer-songwriter performance that appears to be in no real hurry to draw to a close. But this is basically a breather before Lee revs up his engine again for a loud and somewhat rollicking, Fogerty-ish “Didn’t Start Lovin’” that has a distinct rock flavor in the vein of the Burnette brothers. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, seeing how Billy Burnette is one of the song’s co-writers. Unfortunately though, they flesh this song out too much, resulting in one of those awkward jam-like moments that you often see when 20 or 25 musicians are on stage for a “big finish” that are generally slowly evolving disasters. This is atoned for with a pretty, barren, and beautiful rendition of Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” with Lee removing his guitar for a subtle but warm mandolin.
The record is all about Lee having a good time, so it’s a rather laid-back and relaxing affair, with middle-of-the-road jewels like “Livin’ It Down” chugging along without any bumps or hiccups. Here, Bekka Bramlett adds some vocals for a sweet and engaging duet that Delbert McClinton would be proud of. Lee shines and is at his best when he gives “Working On Love” a try that seems to fall somewhere between Knopfler and the likes of country musicians like Vince Gill. It has a bit of country but also a whole heap of boogie. And Lee gives and takes his best licks with Emmons more than up to the task at hand. Lee’s only self-penned tune is a seven-minute instrumental entitled “Payola Blues” that has a slightly faster tempo and a sort of swing to it as Lee works his fingers along the neck masterfully. Closing with a tender, heartfelt rendition of Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day”, Lee gets his daughter Alexandra to lend her vocals for a charming, adorable version of the song.