Blue Mafia really caught my attention with their 2013 debut CD, My Cold Heart. It boasted of three strong lead singers, and a powerful new songwriting voice, plus the sort of dynamic guitar playing that sets the tracks on fire.
Over the past two years, the band has pulled together material for a robust new album, and signed with Pinecastle Records for the release of Pray For Rain. Just recently they have aligned with Jason R. Grubb Artist Management for booking and management services. It looks like they have covered a lot of ground in a short space of time and are poised to make a move in bluegrass.
Blue Mafia specializes in the sort of aggressive “1-4-5 drive” that is widely popular these days, fueled by Tony Wray’s overhanded rhythm guitar sound. And regardless whether the lead vocals are coming from Tony, his wife and primary songwriter Dara Wray, or fiddler Kent Todd, the harmony parts are like a fourth voice of its own, moving and sliding through the chords at all times. It helps to give a characteristic sound to a group with several lead voices.
The picking is universally sound as well. Cody Looper’s banjo is as muscular and active as Wray’s guitar, and Todd is a fine fiddle man in addition to being a superb vocalist. The ensemble sound is consistently tight, supported by Michael Gregory on bass and Dara Wray on mandolin.
Nearly half of the songs were written by Dara, who can spin a prison story or a drop dead breakup song as well as any of the guys, as evidenced by One Bad Day and Consider It Goodbye. The title track is also hers, sung by Kent, which conveys the despair of someone watching his home burn while awaiting the arrival of the fire department, and not for the first time.
Also notable are the arrangements these folks apply to some hoary bluegrass standards. Moonshiner and East Virginia Blues get a lonesome, bluesy treatment that both serves the songs well, and gives a new feel to old classics. A couple of others, I’m Lonesome Without You, and All I Ever Loved Was You – both from the Ralph Stanley canon – get a sincere reading, as does the J.D. Crowe classic, Born To Be With You, and Goble and Drumm’s I’d Like To Be A Train.
The highlight track is easily He’s In Control, a contemporary Christian number which showcases Todd’s expressive and agile voice. This one is a showstopper on Blue Mafia live shows and they have captured that same energy here on the recording. Again, the harmony chorus is a lovely thing to behold.
The sole instrumental is a banjo tune from Looper, Backtrail, performed with just a guitar accompaniment. It’s written in a fiddle tune style, making interesting use of Scruggs tuners. The duet format works as a nice contrast amidst the hard-hitting band tracks.
Of the three singers, Kent seems the most radio friendly, and the band might do well to steer a bit more of the lead vocals his way. Tony and Dara do fine, but sometimes lack the range they need to deliver the low notes with gusto and authority.
But that’s a minor quibble. Pray For Rain is a terrific record, and will appeal to anyone who enjoys unabashedly bluegrass music. Nothing crosses over here. It’s all in your face grass – and it works!