THE HOWLIN' BROTHERS
(ReadyMade Records USA 2012 / Continental Record Services Europe 2014)
(ReadyMade Records USA 2013 / Europe 2014)
The Howlin’ Brothers from Nashville, Tennessee are a three-piece acoustic band that brings heart and passion into every performance. Their upbeat, spirited, roots-based shows are heavy with original and traditional music, featuring the sounds of slide banjo, harmonica and old-time fiddle. Simply said, but they even manage to blow you away long distance with a couple of discs! As expected, they're not 'real' brothers but they have a strong bond as musical brothers. Let's introduce the gentlemen: Ben Plasse (upright bass, vocals), Ian Craft (fiddle, banjo, vocals), Jared Green (guitar, harmonica, vocals). Well, those are just their main instruments... Also a mandolin, some keys, even a penny whistle are played, they sometimes switch and of course, a few friends stop by during recording!
They all met in college up in Ithaca, NY and eventually migrated to Nashville, TN. They immersed themselves further in the Southern music they love and began to further hone their craft. Their first trio of albums was self-released: 'Tragic Mountain Songs' (2007), 'Long Hard Year' (2009), 'Baker St. Blues' (2011) and there is also a very limited edition compilation of live performances: 'Old Time All The Time' (2012). These previous releases have been sold exclusively at shows.
'Howl' is their fourth album containing a dozen songs, released in the U.S.A. on the new ReadyMade label, owned by Brendan Benson, who also produced this album. (If the name sounds familiar: Brendan Benson is with Jack White one of The Raconteurs.) An old-time pickin' party and the wash tub bass led to the Brothers meeting Brendan, who later tapped them to perform on a Cory Chisel record he was producing, soon after Brendan and the guys teamed up to create 'Howl'.
- "Big Time": This country blues opening track literally kicks off with a foot stomp: Jared's custom made dance board. Banjo riffs, impressive harmonica parts and co-writer Warren Haynes (Gov't Mule) also plays some great slide guitar. He says: "They are content to not worry with the current contemporary music scene and just build their own".
- "Hermitage Hotstep": We are getting used to the question-and-answer type of singing for the solos and choruses. The three gentlemen share lead vocal duties on the various songs.
- "Julia Belle Swain": A fiddle driven cover by John Hartford, energetic raw bluegrass.
- "Gone": Here we actually get recollections of The Band! Yes, this track has drums too, the name of the enthusiastic drummer must be somewhere in Ian Craft's liner scribblings... Gregg Stocki, although he claims to have played drums himself too.
- "Delta Queen": The brothers visit New Orleans for a tasteful jazzy Dixieland ragtime track. The horns etc. are nowhere credited though. The little fade-out is a radio DJ's nightmare, but I don't have to worry about that anymore!
- "Tennessee Blues": Melancholy down tempo song, keys and moody vocals with a Tom Waits feel. Beautiful!
- "My Dog Can't Bark": The Otis 'Big Smokey' Smothers cover, better known in the version of Muddy Waters. Blues with a frantic banjo and a whining harmonica, they just never want to stop anymore! With exactly four minutes the longest track on the record.
- "Tell Me That You Love Me": This is my personal favorite on the record. The genuine urgency in the lead vocal, the echoing background vocals, the fiddle and the driving rhythm... Very impressive!
- "Just Like You": A simple, effective bluegrass strut with a mandolin and a vocal nod to Louis Armstrong.
- "Take This Hammer": This traditional makes you sit up and take notice. It sounds here like a work song indeed, "Mule Skinner Blues" was mentioned as an example.
- "Boatman Dance": A nearly two centuries old minstrel song, written by Dan Emmett. Proper folk, very danceable indeed - with foot stomp and slapped bass plus lots of fiddle.
- "Mama Don't You Tell Me": Sweet gospel chorus by yet another trio of friends, who stopped by. The unusual combination of organ and banjo works very well.
More than ten years of studying music, practicing, playing and hard work finally pay off. Their enthusiastic, spontaneous, improvised, energetic rock&roll kind of approach is very deceiving though. Yes, of course they have tons of fun - but every note serves the song, they play flawlessly and listen very well to each other. It is given much more thought than we expect upon a first hearing, they have everything under control! You need to love banjo - there's a banjo somewhere on literally every track. Sometimes also played by bassist Ben Plasse, while Ian Craft is the master on the slide banjo. The bass provides a solid foundation, while Ben's slapping technique makes up for the lack of drums on a few tracks. Yes, they sound like more people than just three! There actually were many more, just let Ian Craft explain that to us...
Long discussions can be held about the musical style. Blues, country, old-time and more in the most pure format, mixed in with elements of folk, swamp rock, ragtime, honky tonk. This can't really be labeled, but the few remaining record stores are known to be creative! Let's try a few comparisons: The Old Crow Medicine Show, Pokey LaFarge, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, C.W. Stoneking.
The rustic dark lay-out suits the music, I love that grayish blue color of the front. Pictures by Joshua Black Wilkins. The lettering, by Ian Craft himself, is very hard to read though, as I mentioned before. He also wrote some liner notes and confides that he served his band mates and guests undercooked chicken!
Although they're fast becoming famous, they still don't have any annoying attitude - they're still your friendly neighbors playing on the porch!
After the 'howling success' of 'Howl' in the U.S.A. (where it was released two years earlier than here in Europe), the Howlin’ Brothers have been busy in the studio and touring virtually non-stop. To wet the appetite of their fans for the new album 'Trouble', the band dropped a self-produced six song EP, recorded at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee.
Sun Studio has seen the greats walk in to create history: Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and many more. The mystique of the studio is equal only to the ghosts in residence, whether real or imaginary. The Howlin’ Brothers walked in and recorded their own set of songs. Ian Craft tells: “Sun Studios is magical. As soon as you enter the office, then the live room, it hits you. We definitely felt like we were becoming part of a lineage of musical folks from Howlin' Wolf to Carl Perkins to Elvis Presley.”
They chose four original songs for the middle of the EP. “The four originals were written beforehand,” Craft says. “We picked them because we thought they would simmer well in the Sun kitchen of tasty music. We all looked up classic Sun recordings and started to realize just how deep the musical legacy is at Sun. It’s astounding the amount of hits that were recorded there.”
Then they took an old favorite and Sun Studio treasure, "Dixie Fried" by Carl Perkins (a single on Sun Records in 1956), to open up the session. Making the classic their own in an upbeat, fresh feeling with the solid acoustic bass sounds and energetic picking on guitar and banjo, the vocal somewhat reminiscent of the original by Carl Perkins himself.
"Til I Find You" creates a rousing urgency with the quick tempo, yearning vocals, the harmonica and of course the trademark banjo. "I cried like rain into the sea / The waves will wash her home to me". Another version of this song was included on the album 'Long Hard Year'.
"Troubled Waltz" slows down considerably, full of melancholy and a dark hint of unidentified danger ahead. "Troubled in the morning / And I'm troubled at night". Great interaction between lead and backing vocals!
On "Take Me Down" the old-time trio launches, after the counting off, into a country blues song, all the while knowing exactly what to do for a great catchy sound! Many people consider this their favorite track on the EP.
Are we ready to dance on "Charleston Chew"? A fast paced bluegrass song with lots of fiddle. Apparently, during live shows Jared Green is dancing a quick step to the beat!
To end the session, the Howlin' Brothers reworked one of their own songs "Tennessee Blues" in a homage to the studio itself. It's quite different and also much longer than the version on 'Howl', only featuring Ian Craft's mournful vocal, bass, fiddle and... Jared Green playing the historically significant Sun Studio piano! Asked if the feel of the room affected their recording session, Craft replies, “That vibe for sure impacted how we played. The song "Tennessee Blues" has a real unique sway like a willow tree. Jared played the famous Sun piano, and I swear, you could feel more musicians coming out of sound tiles on the walls and ceiling. It sure felt good. No AC, just like the old days,” says Craft. “That helped get a sweltering-hot-Memphis-in-June feel to it all.” The legendary Sam Phillips should have been around still, to offer them a contract!
According to the trio, demonstrating their natural affinity for this style, they have made a life out of reclaiming traditional American music for a new generation of roots music fans.
Written & compiled by Johanna J. Bodde - September 15th, 2014. Thank you - John Porter at Mood Indigo Entertainment for the discs & the info!
THE HOWLIN' BROTHERS
(ReadyMade Records USA / Continental Record Services Europe 2014)
'The Stone Fox Live EP'
(NoiseTrade Exclusive 2014)
Right in time - before they come to Western Europe for a tour in October - I managed to get my hands on two more digital albums by The Howlin' Brothers! Not my favorite format, but in this case it will have to do. Thanks to John at Mood Indigo Entertainment I also found some interesting new info, which I'm happy to share with you. Here we go howlin' again...
The Howlin’ Brothers continue with their latest album 'Trouble' to push boundaries and expand upon tradition - creating their own version of old-time country blues, bluegrass, heartache and soul, with an indie-rock edge. The year 2013 was very good for the trio: 'Howl' brought instant success, they graced the cover of 'Acoustic Guitar' magazine's January 2014 issue, were featured in a national PBS show 'The Sun Sessions', shared the stage with Grammy winner Ricky Skaggs, were in radio charts and end of year 'best of' lists. They toured throughout the U.S. and into Canada. The majority of the thirteen original songs that comprise 'Trouble' were influenced by the people they met and struggles they encountered on the road over the past year.
'Trouble' was produced and engineered by Brendan Benson again. He describes it as: “Effortless artistry..., woe-be-gone, lovelorn and wrought with pain, but not without installments of lightheartedness and beauty, down-trodden and then uplifted. The Howlin’ Brothers are somehow able to conjure images of a bygone era and make it believable. 'Trouble' is all over the map and I don’t just mean figuratively. The listener gets a glimpse into the troubadour lifestyle, traveling (among other places) to Louisiana for a Cajun romp on the bayou and across the Arizona desert to California on a search for a misses. It’s a journey very much worth the while. Hoooowwwwllll!” Brendan Benson continues: “The Howlin’ Brothers live the life they sing about in their songs. They are authentic and the real deal through and through. On top of that, they are the hardest working musicians I've come across. They play their instruments every waking moment and are truly possessed by music.”
Amidst all the touring and other activities the guys did to support their previous album 'Howl', Brother Jared Green got married and became a dad, making the time away from home even harder for him. But every night on stage he brings the joy of playing and dancing to the music alive. His Taylor guitar is almost as worn as Willie Nelson’s famous guitar Trigger, with its extra sound hole created by too much pickin’. In addition to playing guitar, harmonica, dancing up a storm and singing, Brother Jared is an accomplished piano player. He sings lead vocals on the songs he wrote: “Monroe,” “Pack Up Joe” and “Hard Times”.
According to Jared Green: “The songs on 'Trouble' are very different from one another. It’s a collection of beautiful music influenced from personal experience. We tend to write songs separately and collaborate after a melody or lyrics are fully thought. 'Trouble' is a gumbo of stories that we hope the whole world will hear. It was a blast working with Brendan Benson again, getting as far out sonically as we could dream of, all in the midst of having a brand new baby and coming right off the road from a busy year. A time of my life I will never forget. 'Howl' received great reviews from all over the world. I am still impressed by the overwhelmingly positive response it has received. We toured our asses off in 2013 gaining much insight into ourselves and the world we live in. It is beautiful to see people from all walks of life getting down to our music and it’s a wonderful feeling knowing that we are growing our fan base". The songs touch on lots of experiences from each side of the same coin in the band’s life. Though these guys have more depth and dimension than just two sides as people, players and songwriters. Their individual strengths combine in the bands’ whole in ways that really do solidify their bond as musical brothers.
Brother Ben Plasse plays stand-up bass and sings lead vocals on the songs he wrote: “Boogie”, “Love”, "Troubled Waltz” and “Louisiana”. He says: "'Howl' was very well received, and I think we owe a lot of that to great bands like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Old Crow Medicine Show among others, who paved the way for a new generation of string bands to have success. It’s a beautiful thing to see so many young bands making music on fiddles and banjos".
Brother Ian Craft plays banjo, fiddle, mandolin and kick-drum. He also sings lead vocals on the songs he wrote: “Pour It Down,” “Night and Day,” “Sing a Sad Song,” “World Spinning Round,” “I Was Wrong” and “Yes I Am!” A quote from him: "'Trouble' is an awesome recipe for tasty sounds your ears will be happy to take the journey with us from Jay's songs of love and Cajun food to Ben’s travels to get a mojo hand and find the girl who has yet to present herself, to my tunes of love gone wrong and finally a little moment in an old church on top of a smoky ole Tennessee mountain top.”
The tracks (some are really too short clocking in at barely two minutes...):
- "Pour It Down": - Starts off like a fifties rockabilly song and sets the mood immediately as a good opening track should do!
- "Boogie": Brendan Benson plays the washtub bass. The harmonica almost sounds like a duet vocal and this track takes us even further back in time, like a soundtrack of a thirties movie about... a gangster's sweetheart, maybe?
- "Night And Day": - Energetic country blues with a bit of gospel and we hear the harmonica wail this time.
- "Monroe": The fiddle invites us to dance on the bayou in this Cajun tune. Reminds me of Jimmy C. Newman. For me there's nothing like real Cajuns doing their thing, but hey - it's not bad at all!
- "World Spinning Round": Tell your sad story to the bar tender and leave a tear in your beer! Nicely sung slow country song with even a pedal steel, played by Mike Freid.
- "Troubled Waltz": This song from the 'The Sun Studio Session EP' was re-recorded for the new album. Yet another sound here, we hadn't heard the piano so far.
- "Sing A Sad Song": Ricky Skaggs plays mandolin on this uptempo song and says: “I sure enjoyed working on the new Howlin’ Brothers project. Their desire to mix old and new sounds together really caught my attention. It’s a good work.” Another guest is drummer Gregg Stocki.
- "Pack Up Joe": The tempo picks up some more for this bluegrass track.
- "Love": A soulful roots rock song and Jared Green's mother-in-law Etta Britt sings background vocals!
- "Hard Times": Not so much banjo playing as on 'Howl' but here he's back in a starring role. The mandolin is played again by Ricky Skaggs. Cool chorus! There are more songs titled "Hard Times" (Chris Hillman used to say: "My Hard Times?"), so let's call this: "Hard Times Are Knockin' On My Door Again".
- "I Was Wrong": Ian Craft does a great job on the lead vocal and pulls it off very convincingly. Soulful chorus and a strong rhythm, played by the various instruments simultaneously in a sort of New Orleans style.
- "Louisiana": Another pseudo-Cajun tune, with lots of fiddle and even a few French words. Inspired by their touring: "We're going across that Arizona desert / They have border checks along that road". What they mean is, that the cars and buses are stopped to be searched for illegal immigrants.
- "Yes I Am!": Fading in, we hear Etta Britt again as a background vocalist, together with producer Brendan Benson for a gospel sing-along. Only 1min22sec, like walking past an open door, somewhere in the deep South. This unintentional effort works much better, by the way!
Indeed a very nice variety of songs and styles and ideas. A great job has been done with more resources and personnel, without losing their original sound. The Howlin' Brothers didn't get spoiled by success!
The week after they finished the 'Trouble' sessions with their producer, label owner, mentor and friend Brendan Benson - they recorded a short live set at The Stone Fox in Nashville, TN which was recorded and filmed by the website Live & Breathing. This EP features the highlights and has been digitally released as a NoiseTrade Exclusive. The songs featured are: "Hard Times", "Charleston Chew", "Gone", "World Spinning Round", "Julia Belle Swain", "Dixie Fried" and "Pour It Down". We know those already in different versions from other albums, but this Howlin' Brothers EP captures the ragged energy of their live performances: heart pumping, bass thumping feel good music!
Written & compiled by Johanna J. Bodde - September 15th, 2014.