Brad Absher & Swamp Royale,
Lucky Dog
(Montrose, 2014)

Moondog Medicine Show,
Let It Go
(independent, 2015)

There is plenty to like about Lucky Dog. Everything is cooking on this Gulf Coast-flavored r&b outing by the Houston-based Brad Absher & Swamp Royale. The most immediately apparent thing about it, though, is its easygoing accessibility. Absher skirts the often encountered occupational hazard of white electric-guitar blues players: the elevation of technique over recognizable human emotion.

Though Absher is clearly able to do just about anything he wishes with his instrument, he opts for taste, restraint and soul. Thus, his playing occasions aural pleasure, as opposed to the pounding headache that thundering guitar licks generate. Absher is performing real blues and soul, not hard rock trying to pass itself off as something more interesting. That feels like a novelty these days. Absher's bandmates (on bass, keyboards and drums) fill out the sound, keeping it kicking and joyful and joined periodically by tenor and baritone sax.

Yes, these are white guys doing black music -- that's not exactly a novelty -- but they pull it off a lot more persuasively than most. Besides, Absher has an assured, friendly voice, not to mention a songwriting gift (half of the dozen cuts are his own creations) and a keen ear for other people's songs. In the latter category there's a particularly winning reading of William Temple's "Miss Your Water," plus sinewy treatments of Allen Toussaint's "Lipstick Traces" and Bill Withers's "Same Love." "Jesus on the Mainline," the traditional gospel song, carries the echoes of Ry Cooder's version from his 1974 album Paradise & Lunch. (I 'm sure Cooder learned it from Mississippi Fred McDowell's recording.) Of Absher's originals "I Need a Drink" is a particular standout, but it's all splendid stuff.

Moondog Medicine Show boasts Lana Spence as its vocalist, alongside Joel Newman's guitars, Keith Sylvester's bass and Daniel Tait's drums. Being in good part an r&b band, MMS is joined on Let It Go by a couple of horn players. A powerful and appealing singer in a Janis Joplin vein, Spence manages still to eschew Joplin's distracting excesses (which is to say the shrieking) that have always rendered her unlistenable to me. On the band's website, in fact, the late Sam Andrew, of Joplin's original band, Big Brother & the Holding Company, praises her as an extraordinary singer.

Let It Go opens with a hard-driving arrangement of Memphis Minnie's "Hot Stuff." Anybody who knows Minnie's songs automatically wins favor from me. All cuts that follow save one are band compositions. Most fuse rootsy rock with electric Memphis-style blues in a stylistic approach traceable to the the latter 1960s, when blues leavened with rock became briefly fashionable in the musical end of the counterculture. Happily, MMS isn't afraid to bring in a slide guitar to root the occasional cut in downhome soil. On the other hand, "Tirer Le Blues," a brief (1:45) excursion into unplugged guitar jazz, is a treat. One wishes for more of it.

If you like this sort of thing, Let It Go is certainly for you, One imagines, however, that MMS' natural environment is live performance before a club or festival audience out for a good time involving dancing, drinking and whatever follows.

Chances are you've heard of another band with the same last name as this one. I refer, of course, to the boys of Old Crow. If you're interested in actual songs from that tradition, I direct you to the two-disc set Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937 (Old Hat, 2005).

music review by
Jerome Clark

4 April 2015

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