Album Review: Delta Blues Outlaws – Welcome to the Blues Highway

Fronted by guitarist and singer Billy Jones, Arkansas-based Delta Blues Outlaws have managed to release two albums in the space of just over a year. Billy Jones & Delta Blues Outlaws hit the shelves in mid 2022; now a live set, Welcome to the Blues Highway documents a performance at Harlow’s Casino in Greenville, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

Jones’ good-timing approach to the blues is evident right from the opening strains of “Shade Tree Mechanic,” as he implores the audience, “let’s have a party!” While the band – bassist Rev. Keith Tucker, drummer Ricco Smith and keyboardist Corey Bray – lays down a chugging vamp, Jones sings and plays a tune more than a bit reminiscent of “Wang Dang Doodle.” The brass section in the arrangement comes courtesy of Bray’s keys; while it’s inevitably a bit sterile-sounding, it does add to the song’s overall vibe.

The late December date of the show makes it just right for a reading of Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas.” Bray takes the spotlight here, providing a solid piano foundation for the song, and spicing things up with an organ solo. The simmering “Runnin’ Out of Lies” serves up a snaky rock riff; it’s only in the chorus that the song exhibits much blues character.

Loping country blues are at the heart of “Tryin’ to Get to You.” A laid-back blues ballad, “Someone New / Before I Let Go” provides a welcome opportunity for Jones to stretch out on lead guitar. But some jarring (and presumably unwanted) feedback mars the performance. Better is “No Diggity,” with Jones giving his wah-wah pedal a workout.

Thanks to Bray’s choice of keyboard sounds, “Love’s Train” has a strong ‘80s r&b slow jam character. Jones provides a yearning vocal quality that fits right in with that vibe. A cover of the mid ‘60s pop tune “Barefootin’” likely brought dancers out on the floor of that Mississippi juke joint. Unfortunately, the use of keyboard samples to provide the horn parts lends artificiality to the proceedings.

A highlight of the live set is “Can We Talk?” Jones croons romantically on this r&b ballad. The holiday theme reprises with a reading of William Bell’s Stax classic, “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday.” Bray adds some spot-on vocal harmonies to the performance.

Scattered mic feedback reminds listeners that Welcome to the Blues Highway is a live, warts-and-all recording. But technical shortcomings don’t completely negate the effectiveness of the understated “Tennessee Whiskey.” After telling the audience, “We gotta go,” and promising to return within a month, Jones and his band share holiday wishes and close the set with the funky “Keep On Rollin’.”

No doubt witnessing Delta Blues Outlaws live onstage is a rewarding experience. An audio-only document of a performance – or at least this one – can’t help but fall a bit short. As recordings go, Jones and his band mates are better represented on their 2022 studio set.