There’s nothing wrong with playing “spot the influence” while listening to new music. Pop has not had any truly original music since Liverpool’s finest unleashed Revolver in 1966 and it’s always fun to figure out who is sounding like who. Case in point: Stir Fried’s latest — Last of the Blue Diamond Miners. The band’s moniker might stir up visions of Southern barn burners content to slash away on their favorite Hank Williams covers while turning up the distortion and their Marshall amps but that’s not even a quarter of the story. Instead, Stir Fried might be the perfect vehicle for Phish-kids who always wanted to listen to REAL country music. There’s soul and heart in the band’s third release and although the music will remind of you of a bunch of ’70s rock geezers, let’s not forget that decade and its background music. Decadent yes, but stylistically decadent.
The CD’s lead off track, “Vanessa” was written by the band leader’s father — Thomas Jefferson Kaye. Never heard of him? That’s OK. All you really have to know is he was a country rock folkie who worked with Steely Dan knob twister Gary Katz and held help in the studio from Donald Fagen and Walter Becker on a couple of solo albums. Kaye’s son — John Markowski — is the lead singer, main guitarist and songwriter in this seven piece outfit and although he’s good at all three of his jobs, the hardest thing to forget after giving the disc a spin (always one of the hallmarks of good music) is Markowski’s voice. Imagine a raggedy-voiced Bruce Hornsby who just woke up and the hangover just set in. Then wrap some Gary Brooker soul tenor in there and a good dose of Joe Walsh.
But while Markowski is wailing away about “Vanessa,” singer Joanne Lediger is chiming in with her Grace Slick injections. The song is pure Jefferson Airplane — that is Jefferson Airplane playing lounge jazz in a Louisiana swamp club. New Orleans ivory tickler Dr. John thumps on the piano while Tony Trischaka plays banjo and guitarist Jan Londen’s Dobro glides through the tune like a dew drop falling on a magnolia. You understand the kind of stylistic diversity I’m talking about now?
All of tunes on Last of the Blue Diamond Miners bounce back and fourth like that for the entire 50 minutes-plus of the CD. “Blood Brother” is pure Neville Brothers funk with a guest appearance by Bernie Worrell (P-Funk, Talking Heads) on Hammond B-3; “West of the Mississippi” is oldTYME country, backporch bluegrass; and “Quagmire” is pure country funk — think Little Feat with Dickey Betts showing off with his jazz-like Allman Brother soloing. The country music continues with “Black Dress,” one of the weirdest cuts on the record and one of the best reasons to buy it. The song starts off sounding like a left over track from Steely Dan’s debut, Can’t Buy a Thrill without the lyrical irony. Then, somewhere in the middle, it turns into a Carter Family bluegrass toetapper. The finale, the more than 8-minute title cut, is Markowski’s epic. No doubt about it. This is where Markowski is trying to ape Neil Young. The crawling slow acoustic guitar that starts it off quickly turns into Markowski’s desperate story telling. It’s not the song that’s desperate — it’s beautiful in fact — but it’s the weary narrator of the tune who is telling the story like his life depends on it. You can’t not think about some of Young’s more heart-on-his-sleeve protagonists while listening. When Markowski sings, “Who can you trust, We’re all pirates at sea, who can you trust, we’re all fucking thieves,” you realize that Last of the Blue Diamond Miners is more than a title song — it’s a human frustration, emotion and longing. Hopefully, the talented Markowski will go even farther with his songwriting on albums to come.
Finally, Stir Fried’s secret weapon — pedal steel whiz Buddy Cage. This former Bob Dylan and New Riders of the Purple Sage player is not just giving Stir Fried their country edge — he takes his instrument and makes it soar. “Nothin to Do” is just one example of Cage’s stamp on this album. Forget about Grand Ole Opry-type background atmosphere — Cage’s steel playing is alone worth the price of admission.
Yeah, Stir Fried is jam band; a psychedelic band, a country band, a folk blues band and a funk band, but it’s also a pioneer of something to come.
I’m not sure I know what it is though and I think it’s better that way.