It would be something of a mistake to call Mike Sponza's latest, Mike Sponza & Central European Orchestra 'blues', but it would equally be mistaken to say it isn't. A burly guy who looks like he just stepped out of the old Steppenwolf group, Mike's a bluesrock guitarist with a pronounced affinity for rhythm 'n blues, no two ways about it, and he and his basic home trio were captured by Bob Margolin on Vizztone a couple years ago (here). That release, however, was quite different from this one. Margolin, as we know, has this tendency to chew on barbed wire while he's playing and singing, and that release, Blues around the World was a rather hellacious affair, Sponza fitting in well, a coupla times bringing an icily cool approach to the affair, contrasting Margolin's more volcanic nature.
Mike really digs big bands and orchestral musics, and Central European Orchestra blends the two (Primos Grasic a key ingredient as co-writer and arranger) with the blues in a way that yields a result straddling a number of other genres as well: fusion lite (think Yellowjackets, Rippingtons, etc.), pop, Vegas, hip stage music, and groovin' talk show or comedy show fare (Saturday Night Live, Paul Schaeffer, G.E. Smith, etc.). You even manages to cross Earth, Wind, and Fire with B.B. King and George Benson. Rather than Being Free then features the molten vocals of Lara B with Mike's cooler-than-cool acoustic guitar lines just before Matej Kuzel comes blowing in on sax, everything returning to the staples of the groove provided by the constantly accompanying big band…and it is indeed a big band/orchestra combination, 29 members all told.
Kakanic Blues at first slams itself through the speakers but then settles down a bit without losing an ounce of drive or fire. At 7:21 (and the CD is 73 minutes long, so there are plenty of extended cuts), it has ample time to do as it pleases, so Mike steps back to let the horns go crazy. The audience digs the hell out of that, applauding wildly after the track. He returns on vocals in It's Hard to be on the Road, showing how the gent could so easily have slotted in among the many bluesmen with whom he's played: Duke Robillard, Kim Simmonds, Louisiana Red, Carl Verheyen, the aforementioned Margolin, and many others. Since his debut in 1996, Mike's issued at least one CD a year (save for a hiatus in '08), sometimes two, and this one arrives in a couple editions: straight CD or CD / DVD combo. The DVD's in PAL or some other format (the liner doesn't specify and my player told me to go bite myself, so I haven't a clue which format it is), thus be aware of that before you opt for the latter. Judging by the photos in the liner, though, the presentation looks to be excellent, so I say go for it if you can, the visuals for live stuff always add another dimension.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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