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 Roots & Resonance » Reviews » Hugh Watson: Drowning Man  First Prev Next Last 
Hugh Watson - Drowning Man
Review by Billy's Bunker who rated this . Read 5103 times.

Rock for the Ages
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An amazing tour de force rock 'n' roll powerhouse album with vocals way out front from a first time solo artist. This one is from the heart and loaded for bear.

Remember when rock singers used to take it down, take it down to a whisper, and draw you in. How the song seemed to flow with emotion with nothing held back. Those were the days of Curtis Mayfield, Dave Edmunds, The Tempts, and Four Tops. This album by Hugh Watson would please Alan Freed or Bill Graham with rock 'n' roll passion and power, soaring guitar, and a voice you won't forget. The musicians on this album take the stage to sing the song another way. This band has a bucketful of The Funk Bros. out of Detroit topped with a heaping dollop of fresh Cream. The backing vocals here are a special addition arranged by Hugh and nailed brilliantly by Karen Smith. Hugh has a voice to lead a rock band and keep the song up front like a declaration of love or a dying confession -- vital and oh so cool.

I just got off the phone with Hugh. I'm glad I got the chance to listen to this album before hearing his story. He's done a great damn album, and he's just one hell of a nice guy. Maria was in the kitchen with him during the call, who is the "light of [his] life." They've both been married before, but they met when Hugh was three years old. She was the prettiest girl in school. Hugh introduced himself: "I walked up to Maria and gave her my prettiest marble. And then I ran for the hills." That's pretty sweet for a man who picked a rainy day for the outdoor photo shoot in order to look like a drowned rat for the pics. (Turns out he looked like Ozzie Osborne instead.)

Hugh reads music but he doesn't play an instrument. He's been making money singing in cover bands since the Marines and he decided to part company. He was singing in a band while stationed in Japan at the time, but that general discharge was a necessary step to launch his career. Now, Hugh is a guy living in a "shotgun Cajun house" in Louisiana who has made a career covering Led Zeppelin, Alice in Chains, Nazareth, Styx, Soundgarten, and many others. His band used to say he became Robert Plant, Steve Perry or whoever else he was singing. I think that was the woodshed where Hugh found himself. His voice made him a local hero.

Now, a career in cover bands may not sound like much, but Watson's band Masquerade opened for Great White and Percy Sledge, among others. Percy Sledge used to announce the band calling Hugh Watson "an amazing vocalist" and Masquerade would back Percy onstage. Hugh's an odd fish. He knows how sing rock 'n' roll, soul and blues to an audience. I can hear Robert Plant, James Brown, Steve Perry, Curtis Mayfield, and Wilson Pickett in Hugh's voice, but Hugh has stolen from these artists fair a square. There isn't a song on the album that quite fits anybody's style. These songs fit several diverse categories from rock to a dip into hip hop, but the energy remains the same. Whatever the song, it's got soul and it rocks.

It was about a year ago Hugh got the idea to do an album of his own. Maria thought it was a great idea, but doesn't want him to do it again real soon. Hugh has an amazing voice, no question about it. What makes this album special is the energy, spirit and fearless dynamic power of these songs. Hugh is a shy man in real life, but as he puts it: "If I was going to open for you I was going to kill you." He gives no quarter with a mic in his hand. This album has a variety of styles like a history of soul and rock 'n' roll and it's not all loud, but the energy makes me imagine an old VU meter slapping hard against the danger zone throughout. He says he felt stripped naked playing these songs. This album is personal. When a rock record works, it's mysterious to me. I've heard all those chords before, but on this "Drowning Man," I heard a voice in rock I ain't never heard before. Hugh has soaring vocals, and arrangements with cool and complex backing vocals no novice would attempt, but the songs come from somewhere deep in the pit of a knotted stomach like to break something if he couldn't get the emotions out. Hugh says when he sings: "I want everybody to feel like I do."

This album was about to be finished when a hurricane blew Thibodaux, Louisiana into a war zone. Hugh's producer packed up the equipment and left town until things literally blew over. Watson's year had been a soul-searching rollercoaster digging deep to give these songs life, and there were songs unfinished. It's not half wrong to say this album was 23 years in the making. Hugh has been through the grinder of a rock 'n' roll lifestyle with all the pain, passion, poison, quick fixes and mayhem that lifestyle suggests. These songs were lived on the road before they were written. Hugh Watson has found his true voice in these songs.

The first critics who get a crack at a new album are the musicians in the studio. They may be the toughest audience. Dedicated career drummer Mike Benet got me to listen to this album with several emails. He's enthusiastic. And guitarist and co-writer on two songs described this music as: "Sonny Landreth in reverse. It's Otis Redding meets Led Zeppelin." And Watson's myspace page has been heating up as he posts the music, with responses from Australia, Europe, Canada and all parts anywhere. Hugh's response: "I was trying to be a painter when I did this album. It was humbling. I'm just a local boy from Thibodaux who plays music. To get a response to what you do is humbling."

When's the last time you heard a rock album that let out all the stops from a man with a voice and wealth of taste? I think this gentleman from a Cajun shotgun house in Thibodaux has gone and made a great album. "Drowning Man" has enough intensity to make that needle jump in the groove. It's a fine example of rock in the 21st Century. "Drowning Man" is one from the heart.


Hugh Watson ~ Lead and Backing Vocals
Pershing Wells ~ Drums, Bass, Guitar, Keyboards
Karen Smith ~ Backing Vocals
Randy Ellis ~ Lead Guitar
Jerry Martin ~ Additional Guitar

thunders like a big nasty metal band with a big bass drum playing a benefit at your local high school gymnasium. "Sometimes I swear I am caught in a hurricane." Hugh coos and belts like Robert Plant through a slow groove pounding crash cymbal grind that shakes the polished basketball floor. The Principal gonna fire somebody! I bet that guitar player is popular with the girls. This is rock 'n' roll. Reminds me of the first time I found out concerts were electric and loud! It was like a rushing mighty wind. You'll remember this concert all the way to Sunday School.

Hugh Watson ~ Lead and Backing Vocals
Pershing Wells ~ Drums, Bass, Guitar and Keys
Karen Smith ~ Backing Vocals
Randy Ellis ~ Lead and Additional Guitar
Teddy Baudoin ~ Additional Keys

2. 1000 YEARS (H. WATSON, R. ELLIS) is one of those 1950s style love songs isn't afraid to get down on one knee and promise forever. With emotion like Percy Sledge and a backing like some alto Temptations: "I won't cry! I won't cry! I've loved you 1000 years." The backing singers tell the story: "Doesn't mean nothing / When you can't find the middle ground." Hugh counters, "Oh, it's rain on my face." If this song don't break her heart, time to move on. Timing is everything.

Hugh Watson ~ Lead and Backing Vocals
Pershing Wells ~ Drums, Bass, Guitar and Keys
Karen Smith ~ Backing Vocals
Perry Gisclair ~ Lead Guitar

3. IT JUST AIN'T RIGHT (H. WATSON, H. ELLIS) is the kind of slow lush soul song hasn't been done right since vinyl. There's more than a touch of Curtis Mayfield in Hugh's voice. You've heard it through the grapevine things you didn't want to know. "All I need in my world is for you to be here," but that feeling doesn't make it right.

Hugh Watson ~ Lead and Backing Vocals
Pershing Wells ~ Drums, Bass, Guitar, Keys
Josh Garrett ~ Lead Guitar
Karen Smith ~ Backing Vocals

4. THE DROWNING MAN (H. WATSON) came to Hugh in a dream -- literally. He turned on the light and got out a pad of paper. Maria wiped her eyes and asked what he was doing. "I gotta write this down," says Hugh. It came from a horrifying end to a bad marriage and a year of pain. Maria went back to sleep. "It's been a day since you left me, left me so cold. You were my woman, heaven to hold. All you did was kick me, Baby. Kick sand in my eyes, spit in my face. Why you pouring water on a drowning man?" Hugh sings this song with his back against the wall and nowhere to turn but to sing. This is a slow waltz of desperation and pain, sung in the stratosphere of Hugh's voice. Josh Garrett plays a no nonsense wail of a guitar solo here that rises from the abyss. This song soars above the troubled waters.

My CD player just dropped a tear. I don't care about hits, but if this ain't a hit song I'm a deaf microbe from mars.

Hugh Watson ~ Lead and Backing Vocals (Screams)
Pershing Wells ~ Drums, Bass, Guitar, Keys
Karen Smith ~ Backing Vocals

5. PAPA GROOVE (H. WATSON, P. WELLS) was written in Hugh's head while driving to the studio to record. This song came together with a bit of luck and a freestyle. Now, Papa Groove is a nickname for James Brown. This is a tribute song to The Godfather of Soul. "I never wanted to be Papa Groove. Everywhere I go people say, 'There goes Papa Groove.' I never wanted to be Papa Groove." Why not? There is only one James Brown! Hugh says the day James Brown died, he felt the loss down deep. This song comes from respect, and it's a helluva lot of fun.

Hugh Watson ~ All Vocals
Pershing Wells ~ Drums, Bass, Keys
Randy Ellis ~ Lead and Additional Guitar

6. SQUEEZE ME DOWN (H. WATSON, H. ELLIS) takes it down a notch with a half spoken vocal worthy of Curtis Mayfield high and quiet like he's just talking to friends. "When I was a crazy young man" he used to "get so high!" Then she came along and "took his breath away." Randy Ellis plays that resonator so tasteful, he welds the song together. Then comes the simple chorus in perfect modern harmony: "Squeeze me, Love!" and exuberant Hugh apologizing in a soaring voice like Steve Perry, "I didn't mean to squeeze you down." It doesn't take a lot of words to have a big meaning. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I didn't mean to squeeze you down." Randy lets those strings sing out the story of a man a little too in love to hug just right. Now the spoken word: "On that 9 a.m. I thought about something important. No matter how much you like someone, reality always slips in. You got a husband and a house with two kids. I could really love you, but I'd squeeze you down!" "I didn't mean to scare you! I didn't mean to love you. I didn't mean to hurt you! I didn't mean to squeeze you down!" (The backing vocals continue with the abandoned idea: "Squeeze me, Love. Squeeze me, Love.") That's a sweet, complex, honorable song with a groove that won't let you loose.

Hugh Watson ~ Lead and Backing Vocals
Pershing Wells ~ Drums, Bass, Lead and Additional Guitar, Keys
Karen Smith ~ Backing Vocals
Randy Ellis ~ Lead and Additional Guitar

7. I JUST CAN'T BE THAT MAN (H. WELLS, R. WILLIAMS, H. WATSON) is a straightforward 50s rocking blues. This the the kind of music crooners swoon for. Remember that soul rock blues thing? Must be 100 songs like that. Some guy has been a lying drunken philandering fool, but he's gonna change. Really! Man, you gotta sing your heart out to be believed with a song like this. "I'm tired of lying." Heard that one before? "No, I just can't be that man no more." Oh, sure he's singing the song to the woman he's been cheating with, but he may be taking a little too long. A little nod to the sincere humor of the situation at the end: "I just can't be that man, Yo!" Like something Alan Freed would book at the Bijou.

Hugh Watson ~ All Vocals
Pershing Wells ~ Drums, Bass, Guitar, Keys
Randy Ellis ~ Lead and Additional Guitar
Teddy Baudoin ~ Additional Keys

8. PRETTY (H. WATSON, R. ELLIS) is Hugh possessed by Curtis Mayfield singing a love song straight the heart. I just bought a Mayfield album this week, and Hugh is spot on. This one sounds live with the "pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty" sung in falsetto that moves me looking through a window at the girl, and riding the wings of a Hammond B3 straight to the one. Okay, Hugh was a wild one, but there's a ton of respect in his voice. Respect!

"Our purpose is to educate as well as to entertain. Painless preaching is as good a term as any for what we do. If you're going to come away from a party singing the lyrics of a song, it is better that you sing of self-pride like 'We're a Winner' instead of 'Do the Boo-ga-loo!'"
~ Curtis Mayfield

Hugh Watson ~ Lead and Backing Vocals
Pershing Wells ~ Drums, Bass, Leaad & Additional Guitar, Keys
Karen Smith ~ Backing Vocals

9. CAROUSEL (H. WATSON, P. GISCLAIR) is the song Hugh wanted to leave off the album. It was too personal. "I remember a long time ago, I was getting high with a friend listening to his radio." The pace this waltz wants is slow and deliberate like a force of nature. The vocals swirls in a circling cloud. "I've lived on the edge, I sat on the ledge of life's carousel. I hit the ground without a sound. Step right up, hit a wall, oh carousel." The most telling line for me: "Tilt a whirl. Now you know." Not sure why that gets to me. Let's just say Hugh has been on all the rides. He's tired of feeling dizzy, nauseous or numb. You might more likely find him at the "Try your strength" part of the park. "This voice in my head won't stop 'til I'm dead, or until I change this routine." I think Hugh Watson is in for the ride of his life.

Hugh Watson ~ Lead and backing vocals
Pershing Wells ~ Drums, Bass, Guitar, and Keys
Karen Smith ~ Backing Vocals
Harvey McFreeze ~ Rhythm Guitar
Ty Richard III ~ Additional Guitar

10. SELENA MORGAN (H. MCFREEZE) tells the story of driving on a rainy night and hearing about the death of Selena Morgan. "Though I never had the chance to hold your little hand . . . See you soon." Watson sings this song simple with all the emotion you might expect from The Righteous Brothers years back. I don't know the story except for the song. When I listen, it brings me back to my own white crosses on the side of the road. Something about this straightforward song to the memory makes this whole album seem like a prayer 23 years in the making.


(A remix of Papa Groove follows as a bonus. Hugh's close friend added a little freestyle over the song bringing it up a step.)

You'll find more great reviews by Billy Sheppard on his music blog, Billy's Bunker

5 comments on this ReviewAdd your comment

"This work of art is a masterpiece. A little bit for everyone. So diverse. Has this artist been picked up yet?? He is amazing with the range and diversity of the song choices not to mention, if I am correct, he wrote the majority of the songs on this CD. Kudo's to you Hugh Watson. You have such an awe inspiring talet second to none. "

Posted by: Anonymous on Jan. 09, 2009 8:42 am


"I first met Hugh at a Summer Rock Camp for kids. The guys in the camp didn't want to sing, so Hugh came on and sang the songs as the others played their insturments. He was amazing! My son was a 12 year old guitarist that was embarking on an amazing journey of his own. When Hugh debuted his album at the Voice of the Wetlands Festival, I messaged him and asked him if my son could sit in and play guitar in one of his songs. He didn't hesitate, replying right away and said yes. Hugh had worked on this solo album with his heart and soul and he let my 12 year old son play guitar with him and his band at his debut. Hugh is not only an amazing vocalist and songwriter, he is also a caring, giving man. His music is everything that nothing else is. You can hear his heart in his songs! Hugh, we wish you all the blessings the world has to offer you - you deserve them all!"

Posted by: Anonymous on Dec. 17, 2008 12:59 am


"It is hard to believe that this is this vocalist's first solo project. His voice is truly amazing. I anticipate that someone somewhere will snatch him up and give him the shot he truly deserves. Kudo's to you Drowning Man!!!"

Posted by: Anonymous on Dec. 17, 2008 11:29 am


"This vocalist has an amazing talet!!! We haven't heard this magnitude in a long time. I imagine that when the right people hear this, he will be picked up in a whirlwind. The complexity of the arrangement in vocals and music is second to none. I expect that he will become a hosehold name soon!!! Best of Luck to you Mr Watson!!!"

Posted by: Anonymous on Dec. 15, 2008 8:39 pm


"Hugh Watson is the greatest!!! He has a style that can never be copied. A Hugh Watson cover band, huh that will never happen, theres no one who can even come close to being that good!! "

Posted by: Anonymous on Dec. 15, 2008 1:01 pm


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