Album Reviews: Roadhouse – Gods & Highways & Old Guitars
That the sturdy blues/rock/Americana sound of London area band Roadhouse travels has been evidenced time and time again by the international airplay that the ensemble garners with each successive album release. Thus far this new set seems to be gathering traditional attention and then some.
Driven, as ever, by the power house rhythm section of Bill Hobley and Roger Hunt, the group sounds utterly focussed from the off as ‘Hell on Wheels’ punches out of your speakers. The more you listen to the current edition of Roadhouse, the more you realise that main writer and proprietor Gary Boner and ace guitar man Danny Gwilym have distinctively different guitar styles. However this works in favour of the group’s dynamic attack with Boner’s chiming arpeggios and buzzing solo runs weave in and out of Danny’s classic rock edgy chords and pokey leads. It is pleasing that they have collaborated on some of the selections here. Somehow the classy Martin Cook artwork, evoking heartland America in the Depression, exactly suits the gritty music on the album and none more so that on ‘Skinwalker’ with its harsh Boner vocal and tuneful vocal work by Mandy G and Sarah Harvey-Smart. Also appearing on the record here and there – Suzie D, who has sung many times at the band’s shows.
When a new album is released it is always interesting to the Roadhouse follower because Boner tends to put compositions into the set list as they are readied. Therefore familiar songs are mixed with material one has not heard.
Highlights of this record – the emphatic title cut ‘Gods & Highways & Old Guitars’ with fine Mandy G reading of the lyric against a prairie chug; the Who-like chordal intro and film noir lyric of ‘Katrina’. As ever Boner’s lyrical writing reeks of vintage Robert Mitcham and Lee Marvin films and this is a key element in his muse, not to mention supportive factor in his vocal delivery. Probably more than other recent releases this album plays up the gritty male/sweet female contrast. The guitar runs here are a curious mix of fluidity and stutter, with the chorus having more than a tinge of middle period Fleetwood Mac.
‘Slow Down’ is a nimble boogie with Sarah sounding confident and the rhythm section sharp as a tack. Mandy G sings ‘Blues Motel’ as only she can, bringing a mixture of world weariness and pure soul against a lively guitar arrangement. Closer ‘Sinner’ has a tinge of The Band in its dark-cloud setting moving into a fleet axe weave and a precise vocal arrangement, that GB ache present and correct. He does sound as though he has much to get off his chest.
And so Roadhouse fly the flag for punchy music with sophisticated elements and long may they continue to deliver.
Sure looks like a blues album. Interesting and creative cover art. It sure is blues-influenced. And this is a new record label for British blues. Checking out the band’s website I’ve managed to confirm the refreshing innovation of Roadhouse in their inclusion of not one, but up to three female vocalists, and I just wish they’d have flagged up a bit more detail on who-sings-what on which track in the 8 page liner booklet. So here’s a name check – Mandie-G, Sarah Harvey-Smart and Suzie.D.
This is strident, guitar-dominant blues-rock, where each track inspires an old freak like me to strut with a little geriatric air-guitar posturing (when no-one is looking) as I tread the carpet in front of a cranked-up stereo. The production is exemplary, the songs, especially Hell on Wheels, Blues Motel and the excellent Sinner all chug along like a steam loco with the brakes off with an exhilarating mix of vocal styles. Great for listening to in the car, but play it loud, and as an enticer to see them live, it’s as good a calling card as you could wish for.
This proves that whatever they can lay down in the legendary studios across the pond, we can match over here in Thornton Heath.
Despite being a big festival draw, Roadhouse exist slightly outside the blues mainstream but that’s no bad thing – the band’s dramatic rock-blues approach gives us excellent, spooky tracks like Skinwalker, another Gary Boner original that explores the darker side of American folklore, laced with a flat-out rock guitar solo and the female backing vocals emphasising the unearthly feel; at seven and a half minutes it is the longest piece on the album. Other tracks have Roadhouse’s expected “dark” themes and elements of Americana – take a listen to ‘Katrina’, which is a musically and lyrically very descriptive original on the events in New Orleans in 2005, and this number makes it easy to understand why some reviewers talk of the cinematic side of the band’s music. Some of the other tracks are rather more conventionally blues-based than we have come to expect – who’s complaining when these are of the quality of the pulsing The Big Easy, the up tempo shuffling Slow Down or the raw and rocking Blues Motel (all with female lead singers- there are also more female leads than usual on this set)?
This Roadhouse lies at the intersection of Americana and UK blues-rock, and it’s well worth stopping to check it out if you need refreshing.
What initially strikes me about the CD is the stunning photography on the cover. Just like an old Camel CD from the nineties, Dust and Dreams, it portrays John Steinback -era America when everything was bust and broken. For any first time listeners the symbolism of the guitar case in the boot of the clapped out car on the cover soon becomes evident. Roadhouse are pure guitar-driven blues rock with a tinge of Southern boogie. Opener Hell on Wheels shows that founder member, chief bottle washer, singer, co-guitarist and main song-writer, Gary Boner is in sparkling form, along with fellow guitarist Danny Gwilym, boosted by the ever dependable rhythm section of Bill Hobley (bass) and Roger Hunt (drums). Then there is the band within the band that is the wonderful Mandie G, Sarah Harvey-Smart, and Suzie D on vocals. Skin Walker clocking in at seven and a half minutes is a native American tale accentuated by Gary’s narrative, accompanied by an electro-acoustic guitar pattern. The title track has Mandie G handling pitch perfect vocals before the guitars slip into jam-band mode. Katrina takes the listener to the devastation of New Orleans post hurricane. Suzie D does a remake of The Big Easy again with superb guitar work. With a hint of boogie, co-writer Sarah Harvey-Smart does a brilliant job on Slow Down. Country rocker, Spirits Across the Water has beautiful backing vocals. Blues Motel has a riff which could have been plucked from early ZZ Top, showcasing the great vibe Mandie G has with Danny’s guitar work. Like Spirit before it, closer Sinner has an eighties feel to it.
This album certainly gets my vote for one of the outstanding British releases of this year. Mr Boner works tremendously hard on his own musical vision and, in my humble opinion, he and his wonderful band have pulled it off.
Roadhouse refuse to change lanes in their latest excellent release. Gary Boner’s vision of a solid and uncompromising Blues-Rock band remains uncompromised and wonderfully intact. The rhythms are incessant, the lyrical themes are familiar – dark and all-pervading sheer bloody mindedness abound. From the first backing chant of Hell On Wheels through the Wishbone Ash-like twin guitar solo of I Can’t Say No the pace is unrelenting. What is new and refreshing is the increased prominence given to the female singers Mandie G, Sarah Harvey-Smart and Suzie D, not just as excellent support to Boner’s gruff and menacing voice, but as soloists, for example in the superb title track. Katrina is appropriately sombre and The Big Easy has the groove of Alannah Myles’ Black Velvet but that song’s moody reflection is replaced by sexual tension and superb guitar soloing. The album weighs in at 10 tracks and 55 minutes, and each tune is allowed to expand and breathe. It is Roadhouse’s use of repetition that increases the unsettling and subliminal effect, for example in Slow Down. The standout cut is the call-and-response Spirits Across The Water, a powerful and magnificent song. The riff in Blues Motel puts Black Sabbath to shame. The suitably confessional yet rebellious Sinner closes what is Roadhouse’s most complete and finest offering yet. Oh, yes, the black & white with colour splash artwork is great too.