[22 May 2008]
If you run in New England funk-rock circles, you know Rustic Overtones—revered as demigods in their hometown of Portland, Maine, and reunited in 2007 after going on semi-permanent hiatus in 2002. If you don’t know them outright, you perhaps know one or several of their members: Dave Gutter and Jon Roods are in Paranoid Social Club, Spencer Albee played with Rocktopus and now As Fast As, Tony McNaboe gigs with another Mainer, Ray LaMontagne, and Ryan Zoidis hangs with jammy funk crews Lettuce and the Apocalypse Brass Band, and is also an occasional Soulive guest.
Their story’s a frustrating one, for sure: regional rock-funk brigade makes good, attracts A-lister producer’s (Clive Davis) interest in bringing them on to an imprint label, attracts A-lister singer for fun, one-off sit-in (David Bowie appears on 2001’s “Viva Nueva”), then goes bust when various label foldings and other momentum-collapsing events derail the whole train. Band takes a few years off after a marathon blow-out on the home court (a May 2002 ripper at the much-missed State Theater in Portland), then comes back four years later, welcomed like old friends.
As a live unit, the years off have done the Rustics proud: their 2007 reunion shows in Portland and all over New England and the New York area had all the necessary brio and almost no rust. The album that has since emerged, Light at the End, is less satisfying—it feels cobbled together from the ideas of individual band members and not quite a full group statement. The longtime fan favorite “Rock Like War” finally sees an album release, but can’t match the live memories. “Hardest Way Possible”, another Rustics staple, has a few of its edges filed down and has more of an easy-grooving, supper club feel than the hard-hearted original version found on 1998’s Rooms by the Hour. New songs like “Dear Mr. President” have a political edge that doesn’t say it like they mean it, and quieter nodes like “Carnival” don’t sound like the Rustics much at all. It’s a listenable album, definitely—the meaty horns and their big band jonesin’ haven’t left at all—but let ‘em refocus in the studio and stick to seeing them live for now.