Vargas Blues Band ‘King of Latin Blues’ 2CD (Warner Spain) 4/5

Spanish blues? Well, you can make a very convincing case for the prosecution in arguing that Spain has its very own form of the blues in flamenco. However, in the case of Javier Vargas, he is a bona fide electric blues guitarist with serious credentials who likes to fuse his take on the blues with multiple Latin flavours that can take in Argentine and Cuban grooves alongside the sounds of Chicago and Nashville. Born in Madrid in 1958, Vargas was strongly influenced by the music of Roy Buchanan, Canned Heat and Alvin Lee, and indeed during the late 1970s lived in both Los Angeles and Nashville. He formed his own Vargas Blues Band in 1990 and a second album was recorded in Louisiana in 1992 with guest musicians of the calibre of Corey Bell. Further invitees were even more eclectic and included Flaco Jiménz, Chris Rea and Junior Wells. Later, Julio Vargas began to gain a reputation for his own songwriting talents and his very own, ‘Blues Latino’, ended up being recorded by none other than Carlos Santana. By 1999, the Vargas Band had recorded its first live album, recorded in Chicago and featuring Buddy Guy. On this lengthy new album, weighing in at a tad over seventy minutes, Vargas attempts songs old and new and that means some reworkings of his earlier material. The combination as a whole works extremely well and operates in a variety of styles and tempo. Contrast the gentle, soulful strut of, ‘Passion Blues’, with male lead vocals that sound not dissimilar to 1980s Keni Burke and production that Anita Baker would feel at home in, with the uptempo cha cha cha of, ‘Vivir al alba’, that thereafter morphs into a Santana-style jam. To give some indication of the musical friends that Vargas now keeps, guests here include Devon Allman, Steve Hunter, the gospel voice of Reese Wynans and the grittier blues of Junior Wells. In parts, the blues-rock can take over too much for these ears, as on, ‘How Verso Are You?’. That said, melodic keyboards and tasty saxophone can equally be found on other pieces, most notably on, ‘Back to the city’. Some of the very best work is in fact on the instrumental work, with both, ‘Tierra Del Vino’, a flamenco-blues and, ‘Buena Aires Blues’, outstanding examples. If anything, the mid-tempo blues are where Julio Vargas finds the happiest medium (no pun intended) as on, ‘New York City Blues’, while for atmospheric guitar playing in the mold of Albert King, ‘Del Sur’, is a stunning piece. Well worth exploring, whether you are a regular blues fan, a devotee of Latin music, or just a genuinely inquisitive soul who likes their musical tacos with a hint of bitter lime.

Tim Stenhouse