One of the very first singles I bought as a music-obsessed child was Blues Image’s Ride Captain Ride in 1970. The song was all over the radio at the time and, as one of the first popular songs to feature an electric piano, completely captured my attention. During the recording of the album, guitarist and co-writer Mike Pinera left to join Iron Butterfly. After one more album, their third, the Tampa, Florida-based band broke up. However, like in any good zombie movie, you can’t keep a dead band down.
The new year brings both a reconstituted version of Blues Image, once again featuring guitarist Mike Pinera, and a new album entitled Next Voyage. The intervening years have been kind to Pinera. His voice and guitar playing are still strong, and his songwriting chops remain intact. While I would not deem the album prog rock, there are definitely prog influences throughout, some more obvious than others.
Take, for example, opening track Butterfly Bleu. Beginning with a great horn-led fanfare before settling into a blues groove, the song takes me back to early Chicago, another prog-adjacent band. Hammond organ grounds the tune, allowing for the magnificent horn section to add colour and dynamism. Melodically, the song avoids the majority of blues-based tropes. Each instrument has enough breathing room to solo, wisely saying what they need to then moving out of the way for the next soloist. About four-and-a-half minutes in, the tempo changes completely and the guitar takes the driving wheel, quickly giving way to bassist Tim Franklin to display his formidable technique. Another left turn and a Mellotron blends with the Hammond to lead the song back to the vocal section and a satisfying conclusion.
Something To Say brings us into pop territory, but the song is lifted by some fine guitar and organ interplay. The horns weave in and out of the song, reinforcing that seventies vibe. As good as the vocals are on this tune, they definitely contradict the song’s title in that they do not have all that much to say, suffering from pop triteness. Likewise, Love Is the Answer is a guitar-heavy, repetitive song that surpasses cruising speed only because of the arrangement. The guitar, organ, horns and percussion all take an otherwise pedestrian tune into Santana III territory with its heavy Latin influence.
Led by a classically-influenced string arrangement, Isla leaves space for the guitar to burn in short, incendiary bursts. Hints of the mighty Zep’s Kashmir haunt the strings and add a sense of drama, juxtaposed with female vocals straight out of the Stones’ Gimme Shelter. There are alternate layers of density and openness which provide a nice tension and release, the dark atmosphere eventually dispelled by an acoustic 12-string acting like a ray of sunshine.
Another blues shuffle with punchy horns arrives in the form of Leaving My Troubles Behind. The guitar (hard to know whose since no specific credits are provided) takes the solo spotlight and owns it. Keyboardist Michael Franklin is impressive, but on this track at least never colours outside the lines.
As mentioned previously, guitarist Pinera left Blues Image to join proto-prog/metal band Iron Butterfly. Here he takes on that band by covering In A Gadda Da Vida. Guess what – it works! The song is trimmed down to a little less than ten minutes, the growly vocals still firmly front and centre and the organ as prominent as ever. What sets this version apart is – you guessed it – the horns. The brass arrangement is worthy of the smarts that bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears brought to the early seventies, enhancing the original epic without watering down any of its power. About two-and-a-half minutes in the organ comes into its own before handing off to a wah-wah infused guitar solo. The band is obviously having fun making a case for the classic’s inclusion. Even the drum solo veers off course and invites the horns back to liven up the proceedings. What really sets the song apart and breaks the mould is Charlie DeChant’s tenor sax solo. The unexpected squeaks, squalls and blares are simply delicious to listen to. Here is a textbook example of how to take an old war-horse and have it remain recognisable while adding surprising twists and turns, yet still make it your own. Kudos!
Staying in a proggy vein, Fugue/Pay My Dues kicks off with Mellotron providing the fugue for a minute before the guitar and drums herald a standard hard rock tune, albeit one that wears the wisdom of age and experience on its sleeve. It makes enough of a difference to save the song from mediocrity, at least until the electric piano and female backing vocals arrive to pull the song over the finish line.
Finally, we come to the highly anticipated Captain’s Suite. Thankfully, this is no retread of the 1970 hit single. The Suite begins with an orchestral prelude (Next Voyage, featuring real, not synthesised strings) hinting at the familiar melody before finally drifting into a reworking of Ride Captain Ride. The vocal is a bit tame and thin and the instruments faithfully mimic the original arrangement, carrying the song as far as the familiar guitar solo. Following from that point, a twelve-string acoustic takes the tune elsewhere while the strings continue to reference the original melody in the Safe Harbor portion of the suite. A breathy flute segues back into a recapitulation of the familiar hit song, this time with a beefed-up vocal. The guitar outro is augmented with strings reprising the original song’s opening melody. Even if Pinera did co-write the song, this is another fine example of not just updating a familiar song for a new decade, it redefines the song and ups the prog ante that was lurking just beneath the original’s surface.
The twelve-year-old me was thrilled to see a new Blues Image album was forthcoming. If I’m being honest, my expectations were not set very high. All the more reason to be happily surprised to find out that one of my favourite childhood songs not only grew up with me, but matured in much the same way. Better yet, Mike Pinera and Blues Image managed, without straying too far from the blueprint, to present an entire album that leaned in my favourite direction while staying true to their own roots.
01. Butterfly Bleu (7:58)
02. Something to Say (3:58)
03. Love Is the Answer (2:57)
04. Isla (5:32)
05. Leaving My Troubles Behind (3:40)
06. In A Gadda Da Vida (9:51)
07. Fugue/Pay My Dues (5:17)
08. Captain’s Suite (Next Voyage) (7:38)
(ii) Ride Captain Ride
(iii) Safe Harbor
(iv) Ride Captain Ride
Total Time – 66:54
Mike Pinera – Guitar, Vocals
Tim Franklin – Bass, Vocals
Michael Franklin – Keyboards, Vocals
Eddie Metz – Drums
Greg Alban – Drums
Pat Travers – Guitar
Jonathan Cain – Wurlitzer
Charlie DeChant – Saxophone
Tommy Calton – Guitar
Steady Joseph – Percussion
Randie Paul – Soloist (track 3)
Suzie Park – Soloist (track 2)
Naomi Bradshaw – Soloist (track 7)
Brian Snapp – Tenor & Baritone Sax
Charlie DeChant – Tenor Sax Solo (track 6)
Charlie Bertini – Trumpet
Brian Scanlon – Trumpet
Jerry Kalbe – Oboe, Flute, Clarinet (track 8, iv)
Charlie DeChant – Flute (track 8, iv)
Chamber de Solar:
Paul Fleury – Cello Section Leader
Olga Kopakova – Violin Section Leader
Record Label: Solar Music Records
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 17th February 2023