Wild Heart (Ruf Records)
“Turn it up!”
Samantha Fish’s demand to crank the volume during a song of the same name on her new album “Wild Heart” reflects her general orientation. Although she’s invariably classified as a blues artist, “Wild Heart” reveals that Fish is actually a first-rate rock-and-roller.
Fish’s powerhouse performances have made her one of Kansas City’s most popular live attractions, and a relentless international tour schedule has spread her rowdy gospel across the globe. “Wild Heart” is Fish’s third solo album for the German based label Ruf Records, and the raucous recording requires fans who thought they knew her begin viewing her in a new light.
Kansas City has long embraced musicians who straddle the line between blues and rock. When the locally based blues-rock institution Trampled Under Foot went on hiatus several months ago, Fish became the city’s top proponent of that tradition. Yet “Wild Heart” reveals she's a blues musician in the same way that the Rolling Stones and ZZ Top are blues bands: The blues serves as her musical foundation and spiritual inspiration, but Fish isn’t concerned with maintaining tradition. Rather than acting as a preservationist, Fish uses “Wild Heart” to demonstrate that she’s an important new presence in the international rock community.
“Turn It Up” is one of several full-blown rockers on the album. The metallic riffs and lockstep rhythm of “Highway’s Holding Me Now, ” a song about traveling with a “prescription haze,” could be played between AC/DC and Tom Petty on rock radio. An industrial Bo Diddley beat propels the title track, while “Bitch On the Run” is a ferocious rave-up that may be an appropriately uncivil retort to the Rolling Stones salacious classic “Exile on Main Street.”
Tellingly, an acoustic rendition of the traditional blues song “Jim Lee Blues Pt. 1” is “Wild Heart”’s least interesting track. Fish wrote or co-wrote 10 of the album's 12 tracks, and each of her original compositions is memorable. On "Road Runner," her thick accent and the barely controlled rage in her voice make Fish sound like a downtrodden character in one of Daniel Woodrell’s novels about the Ozarks. A few less frantic songs are equally impressive. A down-and-out lover seeking a romantic refuge suggests that she keeps her “radio tuned to the stations that play those old country love songs” on “Place to Fall,” and the mid-tempo “Lost Myself” is a similarly despondent tale of heartbreak.
Unlike many albums categorized as modern blues, the songs on “Wild Heart” aren't lazily constructed sketches that serve as launching pads for flashy guitar solos. It's Fish’s sturdy songs, rather than her strong voice and impressive guitar work, the album emphasizes. While Fish is clearly her own woman, the album owes much to producer Luther Dickinson, who made a name for himself as the bandleader of the wild-eyed party band the North Mississippi Allstars and as a member of the rock band the Black Crowes. Dickinson applies his hard-won experiences toward making “Wild Heart” sound like a formidable house-rocking album that blithely ignores the suffocating sounds of the staid blues tradition.
With Dickinson’s help, Fish may liberate herself from the neglected blues backwater. “Wild Heart” debuted in the top position on Billboard magazine’s Blues Albums chart in July. Even so, the release didn’t place in the overall Top 200 sales chart, a reflection of the blues' marginal status in 2015. If properly marketed as a rock album without the stigma associated with the blues, “Wild Heart” could propel Fish to her rightful place among today’s most vibrant rock and rollers.
Bill Brownlee's work appears weekly in The Kansas City Star and Ink magazine. He blogs about Kansas City’s jazz scene at plasticsax.com.