Fiddler struts his stuff on standout album

The Baltimore Sun

I was completely in the dark about Amp Fiddler.

Two years ago, I read about his latest album, the excellent Afro Strut, on a blog whose name I don't remember. But I immediately dug the inviting album snippets posted on the site, and I made a mental note: Next time you're out, support the brother and buy his CD.

I certainly don't regret spending the $20 on the indie soul album. And I'm no longer shocked that such fine music flies way under the mainstream radar these days. It's a shame: Afro Strut, released in 2006, was one of the best R&B; records that not nearly enough people heard that year.

"The more money you have, the more exposure you get. That's how that works," says Fiddler, who plays Rams Head Live tonight. "We may have put more money in the European market. So now, me and my manager are doing more to get me out there, like more live shows here in the States. But now with the industry being the way that it is, there are so many ways to get the music out there."

His sound - infused with just the right amount of yesterday's silken soul and gritty blues - pulses with attractive modern textures. And given the smoothness and accessibility of it all, you'd think the keyboard-playing Detroiter would have been embraced by adult urban stations. But Fiddler hopes to change that.

"I wanna get the attention of radio people like Steve Harvey and Tom Joyner," he says. "I know they can relate to what I do. I got more history than some of the soul artists they talk about all the time."

Fiddler - who's 49 but doesn't a look a day past 35, at least in his promo shots - has carved out a living for nearly 30 years as a session musician. He's played on records by Prince, Primal Scream, the Brand New Heavies, Was (Not Was) and others. From 1985 to 1996, he toured with George Clinton's P-Funk outfit, which may partly explain the deft funkiness of his approach.

He first made a stab at a singing career in 1990. That year, the artist released his debut, Mr. Fiddler, through Elektra Records, whose black music roster at the time included the likes of Anita Baker and Teddy Pendergrass. But the experimental set, which mixed funk with a 1940s pop flair, bombed. And the singer-musician was soon dropped by the company.

Fiddler, whose real first name is Joseph, went back to session work and touring. He also concentrated on raising his son, Dorian, and didn't return to his singing career for another 14 years. In 2004, he released Waltz of a Ghetto Fly, an uneven effort featuring a few funk-encrusted gems here and there. It was well-received overseas.

But on Afro Strut, Fiddler's politically charged lyrics and cosmopolitan production style are better realized. The most refreshing thing about the CD is that Fiddler's sound doesn't immediately bring anybody else to mind. Granted, faint shades of Marvin Gaye color his mahogany vocals, especially when he eases into the upper reaches of his range. And at times, Curtis Mayfield's musical ghost floats through the arrangements, particularly on "Faith," one of several standouts on the 12-track album.

However, Fiddler's musical style - buoyed by tasteful live and programmed instrumentation - is all his own.

"I'm always trying to do some traditional stuff and some next stuff," he says. "With Afro Strut, I made it a point to stay left and make sure that I don't sound like nobody but Amp Fiddler."

On the CD, he scored a duet with the platinum-selling critic's darling Corinne Bailey Rae. The two sing together on Afro Strut's first single, "If I Don't," a jaunty Fats Waller-style R&B; romp that surprisingly works. But the swaying, jazz-kissed "Heaven," a duet with the talented Stephanie McKay, is better. Elsewhere, Fiddler showcases his blues-funk chops ("Hey Joe") and his flirty, sexy side ("Right Where You Are").

Fiddler says the album is a clear reflection of this 30-year musical evolution. He's making music his way. Forget the trends.

"I'm not trying to appear to be 29 or 30 to get played in the market," he says. "I just enjoy my life in this body. It is what it is. Love me or leave me. I'm gonna bring love and hopefully get it back."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Amp Fiddler and Tortured Soul at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place, at 9 tonight. Tickets are $16 in advance and $20 at the door. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.

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