Singing "Crow John," Goin' By Feel's opening tune, Ray Bonneville's voice recalls a recent era Bob Dylan. On the next track, "What Katy Did," it might make you think of J.J. Cale, while the title track vocals carry a hint of Eric Clapton--all in all, not bad company. This not to say that Bonneville doesn't have a voice of his own. It is prevalent in these tunes, as well as throughout the recording, riding comfortably above a set of grooves that attest to the CD's title.
Yes, when it comes to greasy, down-home, back porch rhythm, Bonneville's "feel" resides at a small boutique hotel inhabited by an elite clientele that includes the aforementioned Cale, as well as Tony Joe White, Bo Ramsey, and very few others. Bonneville is also a member of the, you-will-pardon-the pun, "Canadian Club." Its roster--Daniel Lanois, Colins Linden and James, Harry Manx, Kevin Breit, etc.--continually reminds us that "Americana" refers not just to the "US of A" but to all of North America.
Live, Bonneville is a one-man-band, fingerpicking his guitar while playing haunting harmonica and stomping on a miced piece of wood for extra rhythmic punch. His co-producers--Gurf Morlix and Rob Heaney--have helped him maintain his intimate sound, while lightly fleshing it out with drums, bass, extra guitars, and Eliza Gikyson's occasional background vocals.
As a songwriter, Bonneville is always honest and occasionally brilliant. A veteran road-dog who divides his time among Montreal, Arkansas, and Texas when he is not touring, he is able to imbue a travelogue/story song like "Sabine River" with the air of truth that compensates for a slight lyric awkwardness. Elsewhere, individual lines can often be quite powerful, like "Twenty-one guns don't help you none when your world has been shattered," from the anti-war "Carry The Fallen."
When the lyrics all come together, like in "The Big Easy," they create one of the best of a spate of "New Orleans post-Katrina" songs: "I was born on the edge of the Big Muddy flow / My daddy was French, my mother Creole / I'm slow and heavy underneath the sun / But I'm more than willin' when the nighttime comes." Each line in this tune paints a perfect picture of the city that contains a large chunk of the (North) American soul, while sitting perfectly in a groove that implies the Second Line without actually stating it.
Bonneville is a musician who tours the globe, quietly purveying his art, under the mass media radar. There is a category in the annual Downbeat jazz poll called "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition," a phrase that aptly describes Ray Bonneville. Perhaps an even better description is a lyric he applies to New Orleans, but one that could easily fit this laid-back musical raconteur: "I got soul and I got heart / all alone coming out of the dark / I am the Big Easy." • Michael Ross