Boston Baked Blues
Perhaps Tarbox is not a moniker synonymous with being a rock musician—one that plays gritty blues, both covers and originals. And perhaps Boston is not the most notable locale for such a musician and his band to ply their trade. But lo and behold, Michael Tarbox, from Massachusetts, has shot down those theories. He and his band, the Tarbox Ramblers, came through with a 2000 eponymous debut that sounded like a Mississippi/New England hybrid of gritty, uncompromising blues. (The New England part is Tarbox’s own contribution.) The marker that Tarbox and crew left threw a lonely road between early Americana and primordial blues. And unlike the most common name associated with Americana—John Mellencamp—Tarbox isn’t afraid to work all corners of different genres. Blues gets its fair treatment, but so do folk and gospel. And whatever comes of it, it’s a sound that can’t be easily pegged by the human ear, yet oozes of familiarity. What the Tarbox Ramblers do well is throw a variety of curveballs in what appear to be easily understood beats, heavy-bottom bass, and open-tuned guitars.
The band’s second release, A Fix Back East, is a continuing hybrid of its influences, but there is elevation from the debut to this 11-song package—Tarbox took a few more trips to the laboratory and came out with more successful experimentation. Fiddling violins, which dotted the first album, have a stronger place in the mix on a few of Fix‘s songs, giving the album more of an old-timey feel. In fact, if there were such things as electric guitars and amplifiers in the ‘30s and ‘40s rural America, this would be the likely result—call it primitive beauty, if you will. But like any good blues practitioner (after all, the blues is what Tarbox’s core has been and continues to be), the songs on Fix alternate between fast and slow, stomping and waltzing, raucous and plaintive, giddiness and raw anger. But while it’s not a jarring ride—in fact, this is your atypical roller coaster ride—you won’t know exactly what kind of thrill it was until it’s over, and your body sneakily comes out of this with a distinct wobble.
Seven of the 11 songs on Fix were recorded in Memphis’ Sounds Unreel Studios, with legendary producer Jim Dickinson overseeing things. (Dickinson should legally change his first name to Legendary and make Jim his middle name, since everyone uses that well-deserved tag to describe his work.) Dickinson, whose modus operandi always keeps the tape running while the musicians are in the studio, had the band play the songs in spontaneous fashion, rather than rehearse to the point of overkill. For instance, the version of “Where Were You?” that made the CD was what the band thought was a rehearsal, but once they heard the playback of the tape, they all agreed it was fine the way it was. The Memphis surroundings certainly added to the feel of the album, and Dickinson, who even made uncontrollable blues icon T-Model Ford sound (for him) somewhat polished on last year’s Bad Man, managed to capture the sound and essence of the Ramblers without throwing them off track.
There are a few moments of spot-the-influence here, but they are quickly dismissed thanks to Tarbox’s vocals, which are the secret ingredient that tie the whole package together. Be it the nasty George Thorogood-like slide mixed with the John Fogerty swamp-bottom rhythm that permeates through “The Shining Sun” or the straight West Virginia Flatt & Scruggs bluegrass feel of the traditional “No Night There”, it’s Tarbox’s voice that is the common thread and gives this band its unique sound. Tarbox can show a wide spectrum of emotions, yet it’s strictly his vocal imprint. Perfect example: on the opening track, the 12-bar, AAB, straight-ahead rowdy blues of “Already Gone”, Tarbox sings, “You make the holy ghost shiver up and down my spine”. His vocal inflection on the entire line rises and falls, giving the spirit credence upon one’s vertebrae. It’s these little subtleties that place Tarbox in a class by himself. He ties his vocals into the song, rather than making the song fit his vocals, giving him a versatility to allow for an expansive stylistic smorgasbord. Tarbox moves from Holy Ghost to Holy Roller on “Were You There?”, where guitar and violin combine to make this gospel journey sound like riding a warped merry-go-round, as he yelps about his Lord’s crucifixion. And from there, the Ramblers twist 180-degrees on a raw, snarly cover of Doc Boggs’ “Country Blues”, which features some excellent down-and-dirty slide work. And then the ride abruptly shifts for the spooky title song. Most of the songs have a slightly hollow feel, as though the music is being dug out from far back in the speakers, adding to the primitiveness.
A Fix Back East works on many levels. The structures are all blues-based, yet take off on different planes. Tarbox’s work on guitar is stellar, while Johnny Sciascia’s upright bass helps lay a solid, heavy bottom. Daniel Kellar’s violin steers certain songs in different directions, while a trio of drummers (Allan Sheinfeld, Howard Ferguson, and Robert Huisman) swing, waltz, rock, and do other assorted tricks well while meshing with the others. It’s also natural and raw—no ProTools to be found. (Remember when musicians went into the studio and actually had to create music?) And the best part? It’s nearly impossible to pigeonhole. Actually, no; that’s the second best part. The real best part: it just sounds so damn good. This isn’t a record for the masses…yet. Michael Tarbox and crew have found their niche, and have found an audience. One would only hope that as the smaller labels continue to rise because they have a majority of the best artists under contract, the Tarbox Ramblers will have their turn to climb above the musical radar screen. As for now, they have to be content to stay critics’ darlings and to keep the Boston musical fires burning.