Phil Gammage's "Adventures In Bluesland" reviewed
Seven covers, six originals, all have a feel for the blues but not all our blues, from swing to jump to rockabilly, they are a lot like the title of the album they are on, an Adventures In Bluesland.
I am discussing Phil Gammage’s sweeping modern blues and rock album, which owes so much to everyone one from Presley to Lead Belly but sound not quite like any of them. Gammage began his career with post-new wave mood rockers A Certain General before taking that misplaced Sun recordings voice and forging a solo career which seems to define while not being defined by Americana.
Phil Gammage’s great to lousy song average is ridiculous, over seven albums, and only going by what I’ve heard, I don’t think Phil has managed a bad song. On Adventures In Bluesland, along with producer Kevin Tooley, Don Fiorino on lap steel guitar and banjo, Richard Demler on bass, Tooley on drums and percussion, and Joseph Nieves on backing vocals, Phil doesn’t have a bad song in the bunch on this perfectly executed faux-blues album.
Yes, Phil wouldn’t like it but Phil’s relationship to blues here is not unlike the Beatles relationship to early 1960s Girl groups, informed but not in awe of its influences, Phil carries his songs into 2014 and the songs seem to mesh together like a blues soundscape.
The album starts with a pop rocker 1950s style, otherwise known as an Elvis Presley cover, and the band tackles it with an arrogance and a sparkle, honored by but not subservient to the original, Phil has a deep come on and the song bangs its way into your consciousness. It is followed by three Gammage originals: a blues sizzler, a Roy Orbison ballad, and a Chris Isaak Hawaiian honey of a track. All three are aces but the kicker is “In The Pines”, which not only honors Lead Belly’s version but more importantly stands up to Kurt Cobain’s cover. Cobain is so fragile in his loss he can only seem sea sick in the stop start rhythm, like a bad driver with one foot on the peddle it breaks and break until you feel dizzy disoriented and ill. But Gammage leads hard on his harp and the song is all threat: it is a death song before the death has happened.
All the covers have a reason for being, a point beyond the “yes, I know this song, wanna make something of it?” sense of version grinding exothermic in the world of blues. The ZZ Top cover, “La Grange” sure does get that the riff is where it is at but it has the soupcon of cool you’d expect from a New York blues guy. And “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” –all I know is the Dylan version, again, Phil puts the boot in, the muscle. Without being Chicago blues, the band have the hardness of Chicago blues. Phil , singing lead vocals and playing guitar and harmonica, has an attitude that is so tough minded the song keeps on stinging.
This is true on the originals as well: songs of weakness like “Kills Me When You’re Gone” and songs of strength like the ode to Colorado set closer “Big Daddy Reefer”, are all oower driven. Track after track Phil leans into his attack. People don’t go on adventures if they aren’t willing to take risk and this is a risky, testy, intensely satisfy series of songs.
Produced by Certain General’s drummer Tooley, it feels all of a piece and produced by a drummer… well, having your band produced by your drummer is not unlike having your baseball team managed by your catcher: everything revolves around the position. Obviously, blues is a form and a genre, with rules, but when a drummer produces you the rules change, the sound, which cmon this is American blues, could be awful muddy waters but it is crisp and clean and that’s the reason why: a drummer keep it based on the rhythm.
And still, it is really about Phil’s wonderful singing; the man seems to have stepped out of 1957 and yet not. He is a one man million dollar quartet and this is an adventure not to be missed.