Album Review: Ally Venable — Real Gone

It’s a largely inescapable fact of life that pop and hip-hop are the primary musical genres for the younger demographic. These days, the audiences rock, jazz, blues – even country – skews older, to say the least. The exceptions – both among listeners and even more infrequently among artists stand out brightly against the backdrop of that reality. And one of the bright lights among young blues musicians today is Ally Venable. All of 24 years old, the Texas-born guitarist, singer and songwriter already has five albums to her credit. Real Gone is her latest.

Mentored by Buddy Guy and Joe Bonamassa, Venable has enjoyed chart success with her previous releases; Her 2018 sophomore release Puppet Show entered the Billboard Blues chart in the Top 10. And as part of the Ruf Records stable, Venable toured extensively just before the pandemic, logging more than 60 dates as part of the label’s Blues Caravan showcase/package attraction.

All but one of the twelve tracks on Real Gone are co-writes with either producer Tom Hambridge or Hambrdige and Richard Fleming; the other track is a Hambridge solo composition. But with her core band (drummer Isaac Pulido and bassist EJ Bedford), Venable brushes aside any questions about whose show it is.

With a clear rock sensibility, Venable’s music has as much in common with, say, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts as it does with ZZ Top. But her rock-solid rhythm work and fiery lead guitar fills set her apart and infuse the music with a Texas blues character. Venable leans hard on the wah-wah pedal on the title track, but knowingly eases off right before it veers into too-much-of-a-good-thing territory.

And Venable sidesteps the all-power-all-the-time approach that renders too many guitar-fests into two-dimensional affairs: “Going Home” is a plaintive, slow burn number with a swirling cauldron of Hammond organ. “Justifying” swaggers a la Jeff Beck or Jimi Hendrix.

Bonamassa guests on the torchy “Broken & Blue,” a track that also happens to feature one of Venable’s most effective vocal outings. Phase shifters and a brass section figure into “Don’t Lose Me,” with Venable’s vocals treated through some electronic filters approximating a Green Bullet. Venable takes a page from Bonnie Raitt’s style – with good results – on “Any Fool Should Know.” The song’s saxophone response lines are tasty, too.

At first blush, the title of “Texas Louisiana” might not make sense; listen and it will. The song is a spirited duet – with good-natured back and forth – between Venable and Buddy Guy. The backing is hard and heavy on this one, as the song demands. A rare weak spot on a solid album, “Kick Your Ass” is standard-issue blooze-rock, with changes and guitar riffs that are too familiar by half. The obligatory semi-acoustic “Blues is My Best Friend” is better than its shopworn title might suggest. Venable’s guitar spits fireworks here.

“Gone So Long” is an exemplar of subtlety, showing Venable’s musical gifts in understated fashion; it could well serve as a crossover for potential listeners who might not be predisposed toward the blues. “Hold My Ground” is a statement-of-purpose song with an appealing arrangement, and – as ever – excellent singing and playing from Venable. “Two Wrongs” ends the collection as it began: on an arena-style rocking note.