Although those wishing to heap nostalgia upon the already co-opted medium of blues may try to deny it, it’s clear that Robert Johnson and his crossroad-dealing ilk did, in fact, complete their midnight Faustian bargains.
But can anyone imagine an eternal fate worse than what the devil bestowed upon Johnson and his followers? After teaching them all the unholy secrets of guitar tuning, the devil stole away their souls and caused their names — and genre — to be dragged through the mud by the Kenny “Ray” Shepherds of the world. What’s more, said imp has let the pimplike, nonsensical “Blues Brothers” reduce, reuse and repackage an image, selling it in the form of a themed dining experience to Hawaiian shirt-wearing, Coco Montoya-worshiping tourists.
The devil’s mistake, however, was letting the legendary record producer H.C. Speir (and folklorists Alan Lomax and John Work III) get to artists such as Johnson, record them and save their music for those willing to dig a little deeper.
Through the magic of old, scratchy acetate discs, Ohio’s Soledad Brothers have beat the devil at his own game. They didn’t have to sell their souls to make the eerie sound of deep blues music. They understand just what makes the blues work.
Johnny Walker of the Soledad Brothers is sitting in Detroit’s Bronx Bar. The unruly haired guitarist, vocalist and harpist is devouring a not-too-appetizing chicken sandwich and talking the blues. Suddenly he stops eating and blurts, “It’s the groove, stupid.”
I guess that explains it.
See, the Soledad Brothers are flying in the face of what they describe as “all that rehashed Clapton bullshit.” Anyone can learn the devil’s tuning simply by purchasing records or tab books. Though the Soledad Brothers are certainly not the “saviors” of the blues, they are — and this is what makes them great — earnestly dedicated to the subtler aspects of the blues, those which make it good and fun.
The band understands that Saturday night juke-house blues was created for the purposes of dancing in ways that shock the faint of heart. And how it is really difficult to boogie through extended, sky-gorging guitar solos. You can actually dance to the Soledad Brothers.
The band started out as a two-piece, consisting of Ohio natives Walker and drummer/percussionist Ben Swank. Trips north to the Gold Dollar and other Detroit dives — including Jack White’s living room — gained the band a deal with Dave Buick’s Italy Records and a hearty local following. A few 7-inchers and one Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit compilation later they signed onto Estrus Records which released their first full-length recording, The Soledad Brothers, in 2000. The debut is full of guitars that sound the way a Delta juke-house floor would taste, drums and harmonicas played with late-night drunken desperation, and all that goes along with it. There are also specks of counterculture imagery.
Though few bands associated with Detroit’s garage scene have tried to offer up any sort of explicit political ideology the way that the MC5 or Marvin Gaye once did, the cover of The Soledad Brothers hints that the band may take issue with the status quo. The cover shows a wickedly grinning Swank and Walker holed up in a cramped room with guns, guitars, grenades, drums, radio equipment and, at the center of it all, a bound and blindfolded Uncle Sam.
Despite the album cover, despite that John Sinclair of MC5/White Panther Party fame wrote the liner notes to the album, despite that they took their name from a group of imprisoned Black Panthers in California’s maximum-security Soledad Prison, the Soledad Brothers claim not to be a politically motivated band.
“We read the paper and we get pissed so we write about it, but our No. 1 goal is to entertain,” explains Walker.
“We want to be the part that makes people enjoy life,” adds Swank. “We write songs about feelin’ good, songs about drinkin’ beer, and we also write spirituals.”
The Soledad’s latest domestic full-length, 2002’s Steal Your Soul and Dare Your Spirit to Move (a recording that saw the addition of the third Soledad, Oliver Henry on piano and sax) is fuller, more planned-out and almost lusty sounding.
Rarely has anyone reproduced the “Chess sound” as accurately and inspiringly as the Soledads, particularly during a 10-second stretch on the song “Nation’s Bell.” Though Muddy Waters’ old adage that “some [white kids] can run a ring around you playin’ guitar, but they can not vocal like a black man” holds true for much of “Nation’s Bell,” it’s that 10-second stretch of blues bliss that shoots its load all over your ear hole like Ron Jeremy after a six-month layoff. The stretch proves that the Soledad’s could have held their own in Chicago’s South Side, circa 1955.
Another high point is “Hammer Me Down,” which, incidentally, was recorded using the same sort of ‘portable’ record-cutting machine that the Library of Congress used to record many Delta legends including Son House and Muddy Waters.
Since the record’s release, the trio has toured extensively through the United States and Western Europe.
“We’re a different band now” says Swank. “The things we have laid down for the next album are way more rock ’n’ roll and people are going to see that.”
And the band does get rock ’n’ rolly; at times reminiscent of the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” or T. Rex’s “Bang A Gong (Get It On).”
Despite Soledads departure from its “roots,” the band has recently released a U.K.-only recording, Live, on Dim Mack records. This recent release, recorded at the now-closed Gold Dollar, is as much of a return to roots as a band can get that hasn’t been around all that long.
A recent prick-tease of an unannounced jam at the Magic Stick offered up a glimpse of what can be expected from the Soledads this time around: Picture a cranked-up John Lee Hooker-ish yet completely Soledad boogie beat, just made for dancing a little obscenely. It is, after all, danceable devil’s music. Finger-picks fly, wild man Swank knocks shit over and Henry wails his sax for all it’s worth. Yeah!
The Soledad Brothers will perform at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward, Detroit) on Friday, Feb. 14. For more information, call 313-833-9700.E-mail freelance writer Adam Stanfel at [email protected]