by David Deal

Great blues singers are song stylists. They take standards as old as the hills, sprinkle them with a layer of grit and soul, and make you feel like you’re hearing the familiar blues chord progression for the first time.
That’s what Crystal Thomas does on her album, Now Dig This!, with a husky singing style that evokes a bluesy Aretha Franklin. For instance, the song “Take Yo’ Praise” — the Camille Yarbrough composition that Fatboy Slim famously sampled in 1998 — is delivered as a sultry slow burn evocative of Al Green’s grittier side.

What makes the album memorable is how Thomas jells with a crack band that includes Chuck Rainey on bass, the late Lucky Peterson on organ and piano, Jason Moeller on drums, Johnny Moeller on guitar, and Thomas on trombone, an instrument she has been playing since the fifth grade. (She plays with authority, too, as on “Blues Funk”).

Together, they create a tight, funky blues vibe with some biting guitar (especially on “I Don’t Worry Myself,” “Blues Funk,” and Janis Joplin’s “One Good Man”). Lucky Peterson’s organ anchors the album with soul and even a gospel refrain, as on “Ghost of Myself,” which suggests Ray Manzarek’s shimmering Hammond on the Doors’ “Hyacinth House.”

Thomas avoids the overwrought crescendos that often sound so much better live than on vinyl. She sings with a commanding, muscular style that holds on to you and never lets go. She sings blues, but her sass and bravado won’t let her be defined by the blues – and that’s why she transcends the genre as a song stylist.

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