June 2001

Mighty Sam McClain - Sweet Dreams
Telarc CD-83528
Released: 2001

by Wes Phillips

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Sweet Dreams continues Mighty Sam McClain's successful relationship with producer Joe Harley and recording engineer Michael C. Ross -- and by extension, with the corps of musicians who appeared on McClain's breath-taking series of records on AudioQuest Music. As a result, you can take it for granted that the recording is good, the musicians sympathetic, and the gospel/soul/R&B music served up hot and heavy.

But this is a Telarc disc, so add a few crucial components to the mix. First, Telarc -- like AudioQuest Music -- is now recording with Sony's DSD process, so the sound is even better. More natural, more liquid, more present. And this time out, the Mighty Sam has a horn section.

It seems so natural that I can't believe it never occurred to me before, but this is exactly what he's always needed. McClain's voice is so forceful and full-bodied that even his superb recording ensemble has always seemed over-matched. Only the Hammond B-3, with its growls and swells, seemed capable of counterbalancing McClain in full-blown testimony. Here, two trumpets, a tenor sax and a trombone are added to the mix, and their combination of suede and sandpaper are the perfect foils for McClain's amazing voice.

The songs, as always, mix McClain's originals with a few well-chosen gems -- here, Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams," which has been covered by everyone from Patsy Cline to Elvis Costello, and Glen Kaiser's "Where Would I Be?" a new one on me. McClain manages to make "Sweet Dreams" completely his own -- I would have assumed that to be an impossible task and, perhaps, in the hands of a lesser interpreter, it would have been.

The rest of the album is dedicated to his own music, which hews to familiar themes for anyone who has followed McClain's career -- his love of God, his love of his wife and the difficulties of living responsibly as a man dedicated to both.

These are big themes, but McClain is nothing if not big, and as he sings, he convinces. His voice is huge, resonant and powerful, yet he's a also supple interpreter and he uses a lifetime's craft to put his message across. And he swings -- he always swings.

As does his band. Led by Bruce Katz on piano and Barry Seelen on the Hammond, and propelled by the rhythm section of Tim Ingles on bass and Jim Arnold on drums, the band is a powerhouse ensemble, capable of ranging from a whisper to a scream in McClain's support. All the while, Kevin Betz's guitar serves as McClain's foil, stinging him to a full-bodied roar in places, in others echoing his gentle caress of a line.

Harley and Ross have done it again. With each outing, they've given McClain phenomenal sound. And each time you'd swear it couldn't get better -- but with Sweet Dreams, they've surpassed themselves. The sound is muscular and spacious; this is what a powerful band in a big room sounds like. Yet, the sound is also relaxed and open, never forced and never hard.

And, while this is obviously not a purist audiophile recording with everybody clustered around a single pair of microphones, it captures the sense of musicians in a space perfectly. How far back are the horns from the rest of the band? If your system is up to the task, you can walk into this soundstage and pace it off for yourself. Just be careful not to walk into the drum set!

All in all, this is one Sweet Dream of a record. Don't miss it.