Friday, January 6, 2023
Blues Bites: David Hidago, Mato Nanji & Luther Dickinson; Dave Fields; Rival Sons (2013)
David Hidalgo, Mato Nanji & Luther Dickinson – 3 Skulls and the Truth (Blues Bureau International, 2012)
Take three bona fide legends of roots and blues music – David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, Mato Nanji from Native American blues-rock band Indigenous, and Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi Allstars – and put ‘em in a studio and see what happens. That, more or less, is the story behind 3 Skulls and the Truth, a gripping, ripping, and sadly overlooked album that came about after the three musicians met as part of the Experience Hendrix tour and decided to take the friendship one step further.
Given Dickinson’s busy-bee schedule (aside from the Allstars, he also records with the South Memphis String Band and tours with the Black Crowes), I’m not so sure that the trio ever played more than a handful of shows in support of 3 Skulls and the Truth, and mores the pity, as this is the sort of bruising, 1970s-inspired blues-rock monster that was designed to roll down the highway and pick up fans with one bone-crushing live performance after another held at some dank, smoky cavern near your hometown. The band’s sound could best be described as an amalgam of ZZ Top, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix, i.e. a rumble-in-the-grooves mix of Southern rock, Memphis Soul, and Texas blues that grows on you like kudzu with each subsequent listen.
The opening track, “Have My Way With You,” sets the stage for much to follow on 3 Skulls and the Truth. Co-written by Dickinson, Nanji, and friend Lightnin’ Malcolm, the performance offers up a blistering six-minutes-plus of raucous fretwork, bashed percussion, and hoarse vocals that put the rock back into blues-rock. “I’m A Fool” strikes a low-slung groove with Nanji’s soulful, twangy vocals opening, lots of swirling guitar, and a concrete rhythmic foundation courtesy of bassist Steve Evans and drummer Jeff Martin, the song itself a hybrid of late 1960s Hendrix psychedelic-rock and 1980s-era Stevie Ray Vaughan power blues.
The muscular “The Worldly and the Divine” takes Cream one step further with a scorched-earth musical approach and a heavy, fat bottom line that is embellished by stratosphere-soaring fretwork while “Cold As Hell” displays a little more nuance without shedding any of the electricity, a slow-building intro leading into a swampy, simply mesmerizing bluesy-dirge with somber vocals and haunting instrumentation that reminds of Robin Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs.” Hidalgo, Nanji, and Dickinson all three share guitar (and vocal) duties across 3 Skulls and the Truth, swapping solos and rhythms with only slight differences in sound and technique apparent. The resulting twelve songs are definitely built for the old-school blues-rock fan that prefers a hirsute, eardrum-bashing sound with enough blazing guitars to create fits of joy. Grade: B+
From the first icy blast of “Addicted To Your Fire,” one gets the impression that guitarist Dave Fields is more than just another Stevie Ray Vaughan acolyte. The hard-rocking song displays scraps of Hendrix, Albert Collins, and maybe even a little Eric Clapton (especially in the “Sunshine of Your Love” styled descending riffs you’ll find two-minutes in). But when Vladimir Barsky’s spry keyboards are laid atop Fields’ explosive fretwork to achieve a different sort of vibe, you’ll be convinced that Fields is the real deal, a guy with a vision that rises above squalid barroom blues and upwards into the stratosphere.
Detonation is Fields’ third album, produced by studio legend David Z (who has worked with Gov’t Mule and Jonny Lang, among others), the high-priced board-wrangler coaxing another dimension out of the guitarist’s already rich, textured, guitar-driven sound. Fields’ live performances are rapidly becoming the stuff of legend, creating an industry buzz and all that, and Z has managed to capture a largish amount of the charisma and crackling energy that Fields and his road band bring to the stage. “In the Night” is a deliciously over-the-top, blustery blues-rock romp with sharp metallic edges and a heart of soul, Fields’ reedy vocals barely rising above Kenny Soule’s explosive drumbeats and bassist Andy Huenerberg’s iron-clad bottom line as he embroiders the song’s soul undercurrent with some pretty impressive six-string pyrotechnics.
Equally impressive is the Chicago-tinged “Doin’ Hard Time,” which features guest star Joe Louis Walker, a major league player that brings respect to Fields’ work with a powerful vocal and guitar performance. Fields rises to the occasion, giving as good as he gets with razor-sharp fretwork and a fine vocal turn that says he’s ready for the spotlight. Detonation features a different sort of guest in the form of jazz legend Delmar Brown, who brings his lively keyboards to the reggae-tinted “Bad Hair Day.” Brown has lent his talents to such giants as Miles Davis and Jaco Pastorius, so he’s definitely no “B-lister” slumming, and his contribution here is major, Brown’s rhythmic keyboard riffing and scatting, be-bop vox building a foundation on top of which Fields explores various melodic patterns to great effect. It’s a cool song, and an even cooler performance by the old lion and the young cat.
Fields has begun to attract attention for his songwriting acumen – British blues legend John Mayall recorded a Fields’ song on his Tough album – and Detonation displays his intelligent, rapidly maturing skills as a wordsmith in spades. Whereas songs like “Same Old Me” bring a new twist to the ages-old battlefield of romance (a well-worn blues theme), a bluesy shuffle like “Better Be Good” uses humor and subtle wordplay to address topical concerns. Fields seems to be his best on material like “Pocket Full of Dust,” however, using a blues base on top of which to heap a mess ‘o soul and rock ‘n’ roll with just a slight funky strut. Detonation is an extremely entertaining disc, the self-assured work of a talented guitarist and songwriter that seems one step away from stardom. Grade: A-
In one of those strange occurrences that happen every now and then in the music universe, Los Angeles band Rival Sons – a hard rock quartet with one foot in the here and now and one firmly placed in the 1970s arena-rock era – signed with notorious U.K. extreme metal label Earache Records, a mismatched marriage if there ever was one. Evidently somebody from the label heard the band’s music on the Internet and decided to take a flyer on ‘em, and mores the power to them all, I say, because what the world definitely needs is more blues-influenced rock ‘n’ roll and less cookie cutter, Autotuned, radio-friendly corporate rock. With a couple of solid records under their belt, Rival Sons’ 21st century edge and throwback sound has won over a generation of crusty British music writers and earned them a Euro-based audience, but nary a glimpse of success stateside.
Still, the band’s most recent effort, the pulse-quickening Head Down, is filled to the brim with raging riffs, monster rhythms, explosive percussion, screaming feedback, and more than a little modern-daze musical innovation built on the backs of giants like Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, Deep Purple, and Free, among other “classic” rockers that genuflected at the altar of the blues. Singer Jay Buchanan’s vocals are a hybrid of rock ‘n’ soul that evoke memories of Robert Plant, with a little of Judas Priest’s Rob Halford thrown in for edge, and the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson for that Southern-steeped soulful twang. Musically, the band dances across genres like old masters – “Until the Sun Comes” is breathlessly 1970s in style, mixing a lighthearted folk-pop undertone beneath a relentlessly rocking soundtrack, Buchanan’s breathless vocals mimicking Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac, while “Run From Revelation” throws a sly funk groove against a monster rock backdrop that reminds heavily of Bad Company.
The band is “blues-rock” less by intent than by accident, but Rival Sons still has its moments of Zeppelinesque grandeur, as in the sprawling two-part “Manifest Destiny,” which displays all of the band’s bone-crunching abilities. With Scott Holiday’s stunning bluesy fretwork swirling and stomping and muscling its way past the bouncer at the door, drummer Mike Miley bangs the cans with a manic ferocity just a little less than the late, great Bonzo. The two songs’ extended jam allows the band to live out its 1970s fantasies with reckless aplomb, cramming the roughly eleven-minute stretch with plenty of throwback flourishes as well as a few new ideas.
Holiday’s larger-than-life riffing here reminds more of Savoy Brown’s Kim Simmonds (think “Hellbound Train”) than of Zep’s Jimmy Page, but I’m sure that he’s probably OK with that, while the expanse of noise laid out behind the vocals and guitars hits your ears like a bucket of paint thrown against a concrete wall…you’ll never entirely sandblast the stain out, but you don’t really care. Part two of this epic offers up some tortured harp work slung low against the bludgeoning guitarplay, while Buchanan channels his inner Plant with a fine performance that manages to rise above the instrumental fray despite the overall delightful chaos. Taken as a whole, Rival Sons’ Head Down wouldn’t have sounded at all out-of-place in 1973, but here in 2013 it comes across less as revivalism than as a gale-strength breath of fresh air. Grade: B