The storm that Bernard Allison currently seems to be weathering is one involving a crisis of identity. Storms of Life, Allison’s second album for Tone-Cool Records, explores funk, reggae, rock, and a variety of blues styles. There are also compositions by such varied and well known artists as Mark Knopfler, Johnny Winter, Billy Gibbons, Anders Osborne, and Allison’s father, the late great bluesman, Luther Allison. Unfortunately, there is no cohesive agent holding it all together. Allison’s frail vocal stylings and potent guitar playing change with the territory in chameleon like fashion, leaving the listener confused and ultimately bored, as if having spent the evening in a local bar listening to a competent cover band. In the press release for Storms of Life, and in a number of interviews, Allison says that his father once told him, “Don’t be afraid to go outside of the blues; don’t let them label you like they did me.” It seems Allison has taken this bit of paternal advice to an almost paranoid level.
If there is a redeeming aspect of Storms of Life, it is Allison’s slide guitar work. There he exhibits a creativity, expressiveness, and musical authority that virtually every other track on the album lacks. “Slip Slidin’”, the smoking opening cut, is a solo slide guitar instrumental, reminiscent of Johnny Winter, who apparently showed Allison a thing or two about slide techniques and open tunings. And though Winter’s influence is apparent, Allison’s personality shines through. However, the track promises much more than the album ultimately delivers.
He follows up with a series of duds. “Storms of Life”, the title track, sounds like an out take from a Walter “Wolfman” Washington album, which in itself wouldn’t be a bad thing, if only the vocal were more confident. Ironically, Allison sings “I wanna be found, found, found / Can I be found, found, found / I wanna be found, found, found / Pulled from these storms of life”.
At times Allison wears his influences brazenly on his sleeve. On “Down South”, a run-of-the-mill shuffle, and “Snake Bit”, a blues rocker, he seems to be channeling the spirit of Stevie Ray Vaughn, playing phrases and licks taken directly from Vaughn’s hit, “Crossfire”. There must be something wrong with the medium though, because the tone just ain’t the same. The great poet T.S. Elliot once wrote that amateurs borrow but professionals steal. On these two tracks Allison merely borrows.
Fortunately, Allison revisits slide country a number of times. He tears it up on “Speed Slide”, a fun, upbeat tune with a Bo Diddley beat. Then he follows with “I Wanna Drive You Home”, not only a great slide piece, but a great song as well and possibly the high point of the album. “Fist Full of Dirt” is another tune on which Allison demonstrates his ample slide guitar chops.
The fourth track of the album, “Just Do Me Any Way You Want”, is a reggae tune and the point when one would imagine most newcomers to Bernard Allison’s music would simply put in another CD. “Just Do Me” has no business whatsoever on this album. Other songs in this camp are “I Think I Love You Too Much”, which would fit snugly onto a Robert Cray album, and the last track, “Goodbye Little Girl”, another shuffle, but recorded with a full horn section. It comes so completely out of the blue, one begins to wonder if he’s listening to the same album.
What has resulted in Storms of Life is a sampling of bluesy styles, recorded by a talented individual who, possibly out of respect for his late father, has spread himself too darn thin. There is, if not potential for greatness here, at least potential to make much better and more entertaining albums. One can only hope that Allison uses Storms of Life to identify what it is he does best, which, whether he likes it or not, is play the blues.