A Northern Howl– GravelRoad kick down the doors with their fourth album The Bloody Scalp of Burt Merlin
In the heart of the Mississippi Delta, where the Robert Johnson thing happened, the Muddy Waters thing happened, John Lee Hooker… where that beloved and damned blues took shape, there’s a cherished celebration of the authentic– an annual Juke Joint Festival. You can walk into Red’s, (maybe they’ll shout “white people!” like they did when I visited, maybe they won’t), and you can watch women dance without a blush to heavy-beat blues. History still lives there. If you were there in 2013, you saw a huddle of unassuming, weary white dudes get up with a couple Gibson’s and blow the doors down, side by side with the progeny of Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and with their good friend T Model Ford.
GravelRoad are the worn down white dudes who can play the holy shit out of the heavy beat blues– the swung bass beat style that you hear from the acoustic Delta recordings of Clarksdale to the electric work of the Hill Country near Oxford (where the bass drum kicks like a hip bone, sometimes pausing just enough to get the groove into it).
We watched the band develop from DIY blues fans with their 2004 self title release and their 2008 release Shot the Devil, then their apprenticeship with T Model Ford– across 60,000 miles of touring, across the US and Europe, across two fantastic records, The Ladies Man and Taledragger. When they dropped Psychedelta, I felt I got it. The band was looking for a new angle, a new take on blues. They’d studied up and now they were striking off on their own. The ten tracks on that album are thick, emotive, consistent– I think Cough Syrup Stomp would be an accurate description– though maybe people who’ve led cleaner lives wouldn’t use that term. Classic Rock Magazine called it an album of the year.
Well, shit. If that was album of the year, Classic Rock Magazine is going to lose their minds over GravelRoad’s fourth full length release, The Bloody Scalp of Burt Merlin. I’ve been blown away by it from the day they stepped up on stage in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle and belted out the inaugural track, “The Run.” 60,000 miles of touring has an effect. To see Stefan Zillioux and Jon Kirby Newman lay down the weave of guitar work, then sing the doubled lyrics as effortlessly as a breath… I was stunned. I knew they were blues musicians, I didn’t think they could integrate the 60s Brit-Blues harmony more flawlessly than Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
The Bloody Scalp… is full of these displays. There’s the doubling harmonies that so few bands can pull off. There are the great riffs– not 70s classic rock riffs, but a jittery, relentless riffs… more Angus Young than Duanne Allmann, as demonstrated on “Monkey with a Wig.” There’s even a aching homage– with the sweet open string partial chord work that blues fans will recognize– to Junior Kimbrough, “Last Night’s Dream”.
Nothing is easy on this album. Nothing is safe. It’s a full bore explosion of a statement. The band even departs from the hip-shake beat that, I feel, locked them into the Mississippi form. I’ve always been impressed with how drummer Martin Reinsel locks down the groove of their sets live. Here, he takes the role of a hard driving trucker, moving beyond that hip shake kick… slamming the band into heavy rock territory with the RPMS climbing on “Med Pass,” then slipping it back down with “Bottom of the World.”
There’s the old story about the crossroad not far from GravelRoad’s beloved Red’s Juke Joint in Clarksdale. A lot of musicians use that cliche now when a band disappears and suddenly shows up lightyears ahead of the pack. I hate to turn to it, but from the second I heard the first song on this album played live, to today, as I’ve been listening to the final master, I’ve got to admit… when something like this comes along, you’ve can’t help thinking of the supernatural.
~Bart Cameron, American Standard Time