Album review: Widowbirds/Shenandoah

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Album review: roots
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My mind drifts back to the good old Hopetoun Hotel, that sadly now defunct rock room of yore. For a reason that now escapes me I had gone to see one of the current indie darlings who were supporting Sydney rockers Ooh La La that night. As my mind slowly glazed over under the lumpen thump and daft poses of the aforementioned indie darlings, I decided I would just have one more beer and go home. Thank goodness I had that Lou Reed CD in the car to wash away the blahs.

Thank goodness also that that bar staff were so slow – making me wait through till the end of the band and luckily be still there when Ooh La La lit up the small stage. The band were great – gritty and hard – but it was their singer, Simon Meli, who really blew me away, leaving that beer flattening in my hand for three songs, undrunk. He hit the stage as if released from a cage, hungry and thin and Iggy-intense. Within a few songs his shirt was off and we were his.

But it was his voice that left me open-mouthed and slightly stunned. There was a time when all rock’n’roll bands had to have a frontman who sang this well – but that era is long gone: I had not heard a sound like this for years. And it was a delight – raspy enough, honeyed enough, with a range from crooning to howling. Comparisons of course leapt to mind – early Rod Stewart, Free’s Paul Rogers, definitely Steve Marriott, more recently the Black Crowe’s Chris Robinson – but ultimately it was Simon Meli’s voice and no one else’s.

What a pleasure it is to hear that voice again on The Widowbirds’ debut Shenandoah. Meli’s new thing, grown from a songwriting project with longtime cohort and co-writer Tony Kvesic, The Widowbirds frames that voice now in more acoustic, country-blues colours – helped along on Shenandoah by heavy friends such as John Cass, Lachlan Doley, Adrian Keating (who contributes some superb psych-country string arrangements) and Steve Balbi.

Recorded “on the side of a mountain and the plains of the west”, Shenandoah opens with the shout and acoustic chug of “Dust and Stone”. Like all the cuts here, this song captures a wonderfully live feeling, and also that most elusive of qualities: an immediacy that belies the (modern) recording process. In keeping with its very much old-school flavour (more on this later), the album sounds as if recorded by a party of good friends, loose and deep with each other. The acoustic guitars help, as does Shane O’Neill’s “junk” drum kit – a tune like “Go Down” rollicks along on clattery ass-shakin’ traintracks just fine.

Electric guitars are used sparingly but when they surface, they leap out like arcing sunspots – John Cass’s Clapton-ish blues howls on “My Time” and his rotovibed insinuations on “Tonight We Ride” are the right tone in the right place. The Stonesy swagger of the last two tracks – “Time We Gotta Move On” and “Lead Myself Astray” (“I been waiting all day to lead myself astray…”) are pushed along with a nice guitar chop and slash, with Meli vocally in a place he obviously relishes.

My only quibble – as it is with much roots and modern blues – is a laziness in the lyrics: a touch too much going down to the river and laying love on me here. These songs are obviously written instinctively, with a minimum of nit-picking – that is their strength – but a little more editing wouldn’t hurt. Christ, even Dylan revised.

In Shenandoah I heard vibes of Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells A Story (“Rumble in The Alley”) and, ironically, Ronnie Lane’s rustic contributions to the Face’s Ooh La La album (“Sweet Lady Mary”) (and so the snake eats its own tail, grasshopper). This style of music is now beyond retro or old-school – like the blues, it will never go away: like the blues, it feels too goods to too many people, young and old.

Shenandoah puts The Widowbirds squarely on the Australian – and hopefully, the world – map. As a debut, it is scarily solid and fully-formed. None other than swamp king Tony Joe White, who the Widowbirds supported on a recent tour, said “You boys make a real good noise… I mean real good!” As a creator of real good noises himself, Tony Joe should know – in The Widowbirds’ case he is right on the money.

Published December 2011 on theorangepress.net

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