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Native Houstonian Vince Converse shines on international debut.

Vince Converse

One Step Ahead

Mystic

It's hard to tell whether Vince Converse is coming from or going toward true blues. But this is mostly a good thing. On this local boy's first international debut there are songs to indicate Converse has already honed his chops on backwater ballads and Mississippi reveries, and is now challenging his sound $egrave; la Keb' Mo', who has made the most of his name as a marquee act and uses all that money made from tours and endorsements to incorporate any available production advantage into his studio work, from dubs of overdubs to backup singers to (gulp!) horns. And on One Step Ahead, there also are songs to show you Converse has outgrown his days as part of Houston's ever-popular blues-rock act Sunset Heights and is now turning his barroom genius into something more substantial, something as durable as anything Delta-bred.

When Converse tackles a song like Willie Dixon's "I Ain't Superstitious," you get the sense the 25-year-old is traveling back in time to find out what all the fuss was about, to possibly find out why most blues-rock bands today never go deeper than The Allman Brothers or Cream for their inspiration, to possibly shake his blues-rock roots. And when Converse takes on this particular tune, you also get the sense that the performer is, in fact, superstitious. Converse is so true to the original you can almost see him shaking in his sneakers at the mention of Dixon's name. "I'm gonna cover who?" Sure, it could have been fear that made Converse and his band make such nice note-for-note work out of this classic, but simple reverence sounds more likely the inspiration.

Plainly, this version of "Superstitious" shows what happens when a true bluesy muse meets a modern sensibility: good music. Converse sings in the requisite rough baritone, one seemingly scorched by whiskey and roughhousing (though neither is his gig). His rhythm guitar playing fills lots of space, and his acoustic solo here hints at how well Converse can really play. He picks each note precisely and cleanly. This is the exception to most of his soloing on the rest of the record, which usually comprises lots of string crunching and arpeggios filtered through walls of reverb. (No one ever said losing a blues-rock background was easy.)

Also noteworthy on this number is the backbeat. Subtle brushwork adds an old-timey feel to the song, and soft cymbal crashes mimic the aural sensation of water splashing. Alternating high and low bass tones create an ethereal mood; though the atmosphere of the song could have been even more emotive if the percussion had been less prominent, the rhythm guitar tracks muted a bit and the phenomenal bass work highlighted more. Whichever way, it's still solid musicianship.

There are other songs on this record that show Converse is outgrowing simplistic blues-rock. His original "Equality" could be an electric blues-folk standard. It's one of those songs that's so well crafted it sounds like something you've heard a million times before -- but haven't. Over a tribal drum beat, Converse plays the intro notes in a fluid style like a latter-day Hendrix. The sound is sloppy, loopy yet strong. After this nod to obviously one of Converse's main influences and a tempo shift to a methodical beat, Converse sings the lines: "All the pretty people standing around, looking at me, / Saying, 'Look at that long hair. / Cut your stinking hippie hair.' / And then some man came up and said to me, / He said, 'Hey, boy, get out of my way,' / Pushed me aside and walked on by. / And I said, 'It ain't gonna be like that. Not today. / I am one for equality.' " Even though the lines are a bit sophomoric, the plaintive way in which Converse delivers them is attractive.

What's outstanding about this song is the way Converse uses suspense like a good crime novelist to capture his audience. Craft like this hasn't been heard since the days of Mott the Hoople and Procol Harum. With loose drumming and a buzzing organ that never strays from a couple extended notes, this song seems to rise and rise toward a crescendo but never reaches it. At least until the end, when Converse rips off a solo that sounds a lot like Hendrix at his most adventurous. The way Converse slides his fingers down one string and pulls off in quick little bursts comes directly out of the Hendrix book. Even the screaming feedback at the end says Jimi. This is Converse showing gratitude, not grave robbing.

Where Converse fails -- or at least returns to that stuff that's so popular among the Richmond set -- is easy to spot. But for all the blaring horns and backup singers and heavily distorted solos, there's one thing that saves Converse and his band from becoming a poor imitation of The Sonnier Brothers: good voice melodies. Even on the title track, a horns-aplenty house shaker, Converse manages to salvage a trite tune with his vocal dips and ticks. Though it will take time for him to make us believe the words he's singing, to deliver a line with the lyrical motivation of an opera singer or a dispossessed bluesman, it's hard to dislike a guy who sings the word "line" like "loin." Sample lyric: "The phone is always ringing / No one I know is on the loin." Snoop Dogg would be proud.

Resisting that odorous genre of blues-rock takes balls. It's very profitable, mind you, but Converse is big enough to concentrate on other things. Even though sometimes it seems he falls into a blues-rock rut on some of these tunes, a usual blue note or temperedly delivered lyric shines through. Thankfully. And when Converse comes off as what some would consider the quintessential young white guy attempting to sing the blues, the guitarist/ singer injects a modern colloquialism or fusion riff into a tune and betrays his sincerity.

Saying Converse should be either a pure bluesman or a contemporary star is a debate for armchair critics, who have been chewing over this question since white Englanders like Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton started ripping off black Americans like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters 30-some years ago. Today, Jimmy Vaughan and younguns Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang have been immune to the discussion simply because they've chosen to concentrate on making music rather than on busting up roundtables. And you can throw Converse in that latter group, too. His sound says skin color and age don't matter. Which they don't. (Anthony Mariani)


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