Once upon a time, Southern rock was a genre with boundaries as distinct as the Mason-Dixon Line, the unapologetic territory of alcohol-saturated, sun-soaked, hallucinatory visionaries of the backwoods and the drag strip, full of Southern pride and stubbornness. That first, definitive wave of Southern Rock was blunt and visceral in sound and impact, as fertile and humid as its host, imbued with a promise of both intimacy and violence, much like its people.
Like the hills and hollers, the field and dirt roads of its genesis, Southern rock has been the site of quite a few hotly contested battles over the years since its early 1970s inception amidst bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, and Molly Hatchet. The 1980s found performers like B-52s, R.E.M., or Opal Foxx Quartet challenging the regional music’s masculine brutishness with artsy experimentation and gender-blurring identities, inspiring enough of a backlash against its good ‘ol boy foundations to inspire the Drive-By Trucker’s to compose a spirited defense of the genre with 2001’s Southern Rock Opera. Since then, Southern rock has splintered, as all good genres should, into a myriad of forms, each harkening back to its beginnings and its original inspirations while exploring new directions.
Birmingham, Alabama’s Banditos (now relocated to Nashville) should be placed at the fore of a new generation of exciting Southern rock bands who combine a reverence for the past with a visionary commitment to bringing the region’s music into the future. The six-piece band can evoke memories of Delaney and Bonnie with dual vocalists Mary Beth Richardson and Corey Parsons, while Parson and fellow guitarist Jeffrey Salter mine a collection of psychedelia through soul-based riffs. Full-time banjoist Stephen Pierce offers bright counterpoint in many of these songs, an unusual, defining element of the band’s sound. Finally, the rhythm section of drummer Randy Wade and bassist Danny Vines demonstrate an adept flexibility, providing the grounding for this genre-bending collective.
Banditos’ 2015 self-titled debut record for Bloodshot presented a group of talented players willing to blend the many genres of Southern rock into their own personal stew. Named for a big-idea Alabama theme park that sank amidst the weight of its own expectations, Banditos’ sophomore record Visionland simmers as well in a stew of influences while demonstrating a band growing in confidence and proficiency.
Album opener “Fine, Fine Day” is a surprising, Ramones meet Velvet Underground droning punk song, and, with Parsons singing “You know the left lane is my side of the road”, it sets the tone for a collection that stretches rules and blurs boundaries. “Strange Heart” follows, percolating with spooky, swampy blues as Richardson’s vocal delivery gains intensity before shattering into what sounds like a chorus of unsettled graveyard haints. “Thick N’ Thin” chugs along with a Muscle Shoals-inspired funk groove while “Lonely Boy” bears a Fleetwood Mac influence that serves to amplify the influence the region had upon that band’s best work. “DDT” is a high-energy album closer with Parsons and Davidson trading vocals and Pierce’s banjo at the fore; it’s an argument to hit “repeat”. Throughout Visionland Richardson proves herself a singular vocalist and the band’s greatest asset, comfortable inhabiting a variety of roles from torch singer to blues belter, while also willing to step back into the mix to let the others shine.
For Visionland, the band has found spiritual brethren in Israel Nash and Ted Young whose production work evokes the immediacy and fullness of classic 1970s hi-fi recordings. The album is truly a collective effort; Banditos are a band in the fullest sense. Relentless touring has refined them into a tight, intuitive unit, and Visionland is the fully ripe fruit of their efforts. This is a band that promises to keep on getting better with every mile they put on their old van’s odometer.