Will Porter is a San Francisco-based singer with a deep, gritty baritone voice. He sings the blues with the sound of one who understands that sooner or later, everything passes. Life may be a battle. Love may fade. Still, good times also happen. There are times he’s grateful for something as basic as just the shoes on his feet. Porter’s voice lends a leathered authenticity to the lyrics no matter what he’s singing about.
This album features him in the company of some of New Orleans’ greatest musicians as guest stars, including Dr. John, Bettye LaVette, the Meter’s guitarist Leo Noncentelli and the Yellow Jackets bassist Jimmy Haslip, with the Womack Brothers (The Valentinos) on background vocals. The core band is Todd Duke on guitar, Thaddeus Richard (TREME) on keys, Brian Quezergue (Wild Magnolias) on bass, and the late Bernard ‘Bunchy’ Johnson or Doug Belote (Tab Benoit) on drums. The album was recorded in New Orleans. Renowned Crescent City legend Wardell Quezerque (known as the “Creole Beethoven” and responsible for such hits as Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” and the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love”) produced and arranged Tick Tock Tick. The album also features a Bay Area horn section that adds a funky taint to the proceedings.
Tick Tock Tick has a strange release history. It was originally put out back in 2015, although the tracks were recorded several years before, and then the record was pulled from distribution because of business complications. That said, the music on this record sounds as fresh as if it had been made today. Perhaps that’s just the timeless nature of the blues, but there is something fresh and honest about this release. Porter and company perform sound like they were having fun. There is an exuberance to the performances here.
For example, on the title track, Porter and Dr. John engage in a verbal battle of one-upmanship as they slyly try to undercut each other’s hyperbole. The comic nature of the exchange leavens the complaints while the Womack Brothers chorus adds to the over-emotionalism. After all, the song’s lyrics merely say the narrator is leaving his lover by herself so she will appreciate him more when he’s around. Nothing too heavy happens except time passes. The song suggests a crafty solution to a relationship problem instead of addressing a deeper issue.
The more serious tracks, such as “Why Do We Get Blue”, “When the Battle Is Over”, and “Don’t Go to Strangers”, showcase Porter’s ability to get deep into a groove and let the lower range of his voice to emote sadness without being maudlin. He annunciates the words slowly as if each word contains its own bubble of feeling. And there is a pervading sense of optimism on the disc as a whole, especially on Porter’s version of the gospel tune “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and his take on the old Johnny Burnette rockabilly track “Tear It Up”. Porter turns the latter cut into a jazzy roadhouse number where the horns spice things up and take the song back to its R&B roots.
Porter’s duet with Bettye LaVette on Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” stands out as the most compelling song of the 11 tracks. Quezerque relies on a single piano to move the melody. The two vocalists never overlap but sing separately in quiet voices about eternal love for each other. The result highlights the simple elegance of Dylan’s language without being corny.
This was Wardell Quezergue’s last work before he died at age 81. The record contains the sound of his voice counting down the tracks (i.e., “three, two, one”) as a way of showing his presence. It’s an excellent method of honoring his memory and shows the collaborative nature of how he and Porter approached the music. Porter may be the star here, but Quezergue’s putting him in a New Orleans context adds luster to the performances, like rinsing a Sazerac glass with absinthe before adding the actual ingredients. It’s a necessary step to creating something special.