The Blacktop Redemption Blues
Within the opening minute of this record you’ll have decided: either you’ve got your hands on something you’re going to cherish, or it’s time to grunt vaguely about Detroit garage rock being so last year, and head off in search of something more polished, more refined. Yes, it’s crude; that raw guitar leading into the muffled stomp of the drums, the second guitar hooking into sequence and then everything surging into cruise mode for the onset of the lyrics, a lazy shift up into fifth out on the freeway as you turn the radio up and relax. They’re singing something about needing to catch a tiger; it sounds vaguely ludicrous, soulful and somehow sexy as the groove takes over and the heat haze hums through your mind. Two thirds of the way through the song, the brief but blistering guitar solo enters on cue, prompting a shit-eating grin from behind your thick shades. There’s a sudden itch at the back of your throat calling for bourbon or whiskey, and your foot on the accelerator has unaccountably gained several pounds.
It’s blues rock, baby. The sound of drunken joy, lost love, lingering lust and rampant rage; it’s the music of the devil and religion both. It’s the resonance of the primaeval swamps in our minds, the burning certainty of the subconscious, the scent of sex in the night air, the oogie boogie man with gator’s grin and hippo’s belly. Its intellect seldom peaks higher than the three adrenalin-inducing Fs, and hey, it’s neither particularly supple nor subtle. But it’s the truth, and if you don’t like it, then get the hell out of my review and back to your plastic world of permed-poodle pop rock, women who look like coat hangers and Bud Lite.
The Soledad Brothers are on a crusade for that truth, which is to say they both quest for and embody it. Frontman Johnny Walker was born to the struggle on Friday the 13th, out in desolate South Toledo, with his umbilical chord wrapped around his neck seven times; they play under the Black Panther logo, and their name refers to the generic term for any African-American inmate of California’s Soledad Prison (as well as specifically to a trio incarcerated for killing a guard in retaliation for the murder of three black activists). Between them they wield the harp and sax alongside the more traditional arsenal of guitar, drums and honky tonk piano; all with both grit and gusto. I think it’s safe to say they’ve got the blues pretty bad, all the more so considering they’re actually white.
White is a word and name that’s writ large in the band’s story; Jack produced their first single and then helped them get it out there, and in return Johnny taught him how to play the slide guitar, and went on to write “Goin’ Back to Memphis”, which is now regularly included in White Stripes sets. Now to me, Jack White’s pale-faced, straggle-haired persona has always seemed closer to gothic than the gospel blues, and the White Stripes albums slightly artificial spectacles (naming your LP after a Dutch designer… hmm) overshadowed by Meg and Jack’s (media) characters in the same way Hollywood celebrities are often glitzy add-ons to a film rather than integral, believable part of it. So I’m relieved to say that whilst the Soledads reak of desperado soul authenticity—from the 12-bar blues bass/sax combo on “Ain’t It Funny” to the testifying traditional “Lay Down This World” and the organ-imbued heartbreak of “Only Flower in My Bed”—it’s the music that stands at the forefront, not the histrionics or the haircuts.
In these days of post-election despair, it’s comforting to put on songs like this and be reminded that what’s important hasn’t really changed, that the heart of American music beats on, powerful, emotional and relevent as ever. You may be about to endure another four years of the Patriot Act that allows the authorities to bring you in for questioning simply on the basis of them not liking what you have to say, but that doesn’t mean you need suffer in silence. On the tarmac and in the bars, turn them up: “S-O-L-E-D-A-D/ Play it loud and it’ll set you free/ Shine a light for all to see.” Boom boom.