Fans who have been following Evelyn Rubio’s work since her 1999 debut Evelyn Automarginados, will find the powerful and stirring blues-funk of her latest release, Crossing Borders, no surprise. For the rest of us, it’s about as pleasing a revelation as you could wish for. Crossing Borders is released on the SeaSpeed Productions label and produced by Grammy-winner Larry Fulcher, who also contributes dynamic bass playing to the new disc along with A-list musicians including Mike Finnigan (keys), Tony Braunagel (drums), and Johnny Lee Schell (guitar) as well as Al Staehely (guitar) and Mark Andes. Add to that the world-class guitarists David Grissom, and Josh Sklair and its obvious that the Houston-based Ms. Rubio has cooked up one soulful stew of blues, R&B, and rock.
It only takes a few bars of opener “One More Last Time” to bring to mind the addictive elements of Funkadelic, late-period Miles Davis, B.B. King and even The Eagles. The song eases from the blocks in an assured, rolling swagger. Wah-wah guitar, buzzing keyboards, deep bass, swaying drums with plenty of high-hat intonation. Singing deserts, dusty roads, down ‘n dirty swamps and endless highways. All this well before Rubio ramps things up even further with her most potent weapon.
Evelyn Rubio has made a career out of challenging conventions. Female saxophonists are a rarity. Female saxophonists fronting a blues-rock band are almost unheard of. Add to that a strong and silky singing voice and solid songwriting chops and you have a unique, compelling package. As back-stories go, Rubio’s is as incredible as they come. The barrios of Mexico City are about as unlikely a starting point as you could imagine for a journey which has seen Rubio front blues festivals and rock stages around the world. From a background in musical theatre and evenings spent literally moonlighting in Mexican rock bands, Rubio took the calculated risk of travelling to America, where a chance meeting with Al Staehely (renowned songwriter and alumni of legendary psych-rock band Spirit) set the ball rolling.
Crossing Borders is Rubio’s fifth studio album (counting the English and Spanish versions of Hombres as one). It’s as strong and accomplished as anything released this year, that being no small accolade. You’ll have to wait until third track “Just Like A Drug” before hearing that famous sax. For a jazz-aficionado such as myself, it is always fascinating to hear the instrument outside of its most settled home. Ever since being largely displaced by the electric guitar, it’s been decades since we’ve been treated to blues-rock sax as good as this. Rubio’s playing is fluid, yearning and effortless, yet possessed of a potent sting, a wicked twist. It is to Rubio’s credit, and testament to her other strengths, that the sax is used somewhat sparingly throughout the album. When it does appear, it’s a delight.
Rubio’s international pedigree adds much variety. Witness the shuffling, exotic rhythm on “Port Isabel.” Shakers, tinkling percussion and some lovely, bright guitar-runs conjure blue skies and bluer waters, yet we’re never far from back-street funk. The sax spins on a dime, swooping down from the serene clouds to stalk the night alleys and jumping clubs. There is also some fine scat singing here. It’s a definite 70s vibe. Close your eyes and this could be a classic groove on a George Benson record.
Crossing Borders brings you as many smooth ballads and Latin street parties as it does hard blues and strutting country-rock. On “I Don’t Understand,” a sparsely arranged and heartfelt, downtempo number, we have the timeless mix of sax and strings, a rarity and therefore a pleasant surprise. The highlight, for this reviewer, is most definitely “Besame Mucho.” This is, of course, about as famous a Mexican song as you could find (it was written in 1940 by national treasure Consuelo Velázquez). Rubio transforms the song into a gorgeous hard-blues number, full of slide guitar, foot-stomp instrumentation and walking bass. Here, Rubio really lets loose. Singing in her native language, she infuses the track with palpable emotion. It makes you wish for the inclusion of more such pieces.
Rubio’s voice is as versatile as it is strong. She is as convincing on soaring love songs as she is gritty on funky proclamations. Throughout, she displays guilelessness and honesty. The most effective singers are those who can convey genuine emotion and Rubio belongs in this category. Crossing Borders has so much to offer, in terms of broadness and musical accomplishment, that it assuredly deserves the accolades with which it will doubtless be honored.
By Chris Wheatley