[11 October 2007]
Look at all the folks
Friends of mine
Sweetest people shakin’ their behind
—“Meet Me Down at Heavy Load”
What to do when you’ve formed an alt-country band in a Michigan steel city at the height of a garage-rock revolution? You get the hell out of Dodge, that’s what. This was the dilemma facing Detroit’s Deadstring Brothers from their formation in the winter of 2001 to the release of their self-titled debut on local label Times Beach two years later. But where to go— follow in the footsteps of country “outlaw” Willie Nelson and move to Austin, possibly go down to Alabama where southern rockers Drive-By Truckers are whooping it up, or just maybe cross the Atlantic and head for London. After all, that seemed to work fine for Jimi Hendrix. In reality, it was slightly more straightforward. According to the group’s founder and songwriter, Kurt Marschke, “the first record had distribution in England, so we went there. Then we just kept going back and the crowds kept getting bigger.”
Lucky, really, because how else would they have discovered the burgeoning underground country rock scene that’s turned those once swinging streets into a Wild West End - - well at least every last Saturday of the month when the Heavy Load Club (paid tribute to here on the feelgood, guitar-driven rocker “Meet Me Down at Heavy Load”) is “loading it up” to the vintage sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Band at the Phoenix—and bumped into the like-minded trio of new Brothers, Spencer Cullum, the group’s first permanent steel guitarist, his bass-playing sibling Jeff and pianist/organist Patrick Kenneally in the process?
Recorded in the band’s own studio, Silver Mountain, the Deadstring Brothers’ third album and second release for Bloodshot, follows on from the excellent southern raunch-and-roll of its predecessor Starving Winter Report (their U.S. debut proper with countrywide distribution and promotion), but this time the cut-throat country is melded with a edgier, soulful rock ‘n’ roll swagger that allows sultry backing singer Masha Marjieh a chance to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight on eight of the eleven tracks, providing the band with an opportunity to move away from the Exile On Main Street pigeonholing that’s dogged them from the beginning. Admittedly, there are moments, as on the sublime, plaintive country ballad “If You Want Me To”, where Marschke’s Jaggeresque vocal stylings inexorably conjure up images of the Stones’ early ‘70s output, but these are the exception rather than the rule now.
The lead song “Ain’t No Hidin’ Love” is a far better example of what you can expect to find high up on Silver Mountain. When Brothers studio regular Ross Westerbur (who appears on the majority of cuts here and on Starving Winter Report) starts pounding his Hammond organ keys and Marjieh, the once serene siren, cuts loose with a bluesy holler reminiscent of ‘60s-era Tina Turner co-joined with a young Suzi Quatro, the Deadstring Brothers’ former southern strut becomes a full-on rock ‘n’ roll swagger. The party continues with the spit-and-sawdust rocking blues of “Queen of the Scene”, a piece of barroom brilliance that sees Marjieh share vocal duties with Marschke, while the bluegrass-inflected title-track, replete with trilling mandolin and earthy cello, along with the slow burning, soulful edginess reminiscent of early Little Feat or the Band on “Some Kind of User” (the only track where Marjieh is absent), slows things down considerably.
Elsewhere, the Deadstring Brothers tip their Stetsons to the outlaw movement with the inclusion of the Leon-Russell-penned “You Look Like the Devil” as their sole cover, a song previously recorded by Willie Nelson on his 1973 album Shotgun Willie. Nelson’s regular harmonica player Mickey Raphael guests on both the string-laden country ballad “Slow Down”, that curiously seems to have hints of Smokie’s “Arms of Mary” in the mix, and album closer “The Light Shines Within”, a beautiful clapboard confessional with perfect harmony vocals, lush harmonica solo and shimmering dobro.
With Silver Mountain successfully building upon the excellent rootsy rock ‘n’ roll of the band’s two previous albums, while also finding an invigorated voice through the rough-edged, soulful stylings of Marjieh, it appears the time has finally come for the Deadstring Brothers to go kick-ass and take numbers country-style down where the Delta meets Motor City via the Wild West End.