Norman Sylvester

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Louisiana-born guitarist/vocalist Norman Sylvester has been gigging around Portland, Oregon, since the mid-’80s, and he was recently inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. His style, though, carries strong echoes of his Gulf Coast roots. The title tune is a swampy 6/8 ballad; elsewhere he alternately showcases a sophisticated jump-and-jive elan (the topical Outsource At the Top) and a funk-flavored strut (Senior Moments, Fine as Frog Hair); his guitar work invokes T-Bone, toughened by an Albert-Collins-by-way-of-Gatemouth aggressiveness.

Norman SylvesterSylvester’s ballad work is equally convincing. On Bad Weather, he summons a deep, clear-toned baritone croon to sing about the disaster wreaked on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina If You Didn’t Want Me to Have the Blues features an extended guitar solo that highlights Sylvester’s finely honed melodic sensibility and tonal suppleness. In Please Lie to Me, he lays his Charles Brown–like ruminations over Bill Rhoades’ atavistic harp squalls as Frank “Funk Master” Redding contributes some moody after-hours organ work.

Sylvester can also call forth images of Mississippi. S-E-N-D, a cyber-age updating of folksy aphorisms (“don’t e-mail what you heard, only what you know”) is couched in a Delta-fried boogie. Blues Is in Control echoes a stripped-down Smokestack Lightning; Sylvester’s lyrics are rife with images of erotic betrayal, guns-and-whiskey mayhem, and “a new big-leg woman” who sounds as if she’ll either help Sylvester’s protagonist get over his earlier travails or create new ones of her own.

If Sylvester’s storylines occasionally get a little arch (he invokes “the blues” pretty often, and some of his high-tech references sound like self-conscious attempts to be contemporary), he remains a first-rate storyteller with vocal and instrumental chops that do justice to his unique lyric vision. Judging from what’s here, it seems likely that one of the Northwest’s better-kept blues secrets won’t be a secret for much longer.

—David Whiteis

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