CD Review by Scott A. Smith
Photo courtesy of Kayos Records
Guitarist/songwriter/singer Ricky Byrd’s inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn’t a fluke.
The 63-year-old Byrd, whose electric guitar and background vocals graced Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ timeless “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” album back in 1981, among other popular recordings, has kept his musical powers sharp and ready for an audience, despite the continued, often-numbing presence of COVID-19 all around us. Proof that Byrd isn’t letting his creativity dry up can be found dozens of times over throughout his new solo CD, “Sobering Times.”
Released by the Kayos Records label and featuring such notable musicians as drummers Steve Holley (Paul McCartney & Wings), Liberty DeVitto (Billy Joel) and Thommy Price (Joan Jett), “Sobering Times” gleefully steps into rock, pop, blues and country-tinged territory, serving up a well-rounded piece of art that is both entertaining and inspirational.
Immediately out of the gate on the disc-opener, “Quittin’ Time (Again),” Byrd and his musical cohorts set a confident-yet-laid-back vibe. Set at an uptempo pace, “Quittin’ Time (Again)” first boasts Byrd’s sturdy rhythm guitar before drums and, later, bass, enter the sonic fold. Byrd’s voice and six-string abilities are as versatile as they are pleasing; Byrd’s singing voice, with ease, could fit into seemingly countless groups such as The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, Gary Clark Jr.’s band, Ian Hunter and, when they are at their most melodic, Guns ‘N Roses. “Quittin’ Time (Again)” does exactly what every album-opening number should do — it grabs one’s attention and ears and doesn’t let go.
Co-produced by Byrd and featuring singer Christine “The Beehive Queen” Ohlman (“Saturday Night Live” band), keyboardist Jeff Kazee (Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes), songwriter Willie Nile and bassist/percussionist Bob Stander, the CD also has high-water marks in the form of the songs like “I Come Back Stronger,” “Recover Me” and “Ain’t Gonna Live Like That.”
In “I Come Back Stronger,” Byrd can be found professing his focused determination and strong spirit. With a chorus that delivers a nice, half-time beat, “I Come Back Stronger” allows Byrd to reveal things, such as being a sober soul since 1987. “When life hands you keys that just won’t open any doors … it’s the faith you find along the way,” Byrd sings. “I was hopeless once, but not any longer.”
Penned by Byrd and Willie Nile, “Recover Me” fully embraces a flavor not too far removed from Cheap Trick and Faces-era Rod Stewart, although Byrd definitely still makes the track his own. “Ain’t Gonna Live Like That” gently requires the band to slip into shuffle-beat mode, and Byrd’s tastefully sassy lead guitar summons the listener’s attention and respect.
Anyone seeking impressive interplay between guitar and piano will be rewarded via “Pour Me,” and Byrd and his compatriots do Merle Haggard proud by dishing up a punchier, less-twangy take on Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down.” For “Life is Good,” Byrd maintains a high quality and produces autobiographical material — a man looking back on his past that involved “pain as a companion” and a mind-set of “living to die.” Thankfully, the song also reveals Byrd’s optimism and thirst for healthy, creative living.
“Just Like You” also will score points with music fans, effectively employing a lone acoustic guitar’s gentle chords and harmonics as its intro. “A head full of denial beats logic every time,” Byrd sings while describing one’s past love for the bottle. “Living this way was insane, so I prayed for change,” Byrd continues to sing. “And change came.”
Goldmine Magazine has hailed Byrd’s vocals on “Sobering Times” as the best of his career. You know, Goldmine isn’t lying here. The dreadful COVID-19 can try and stick around longer to temporarily trap us in unsettled, absolutely strange times, but Ricky Byrd’s “Sobering Times” CD is going to help a lot of music fans cope. And in more ways than one.