Wise blood

A Southern revival preacher, conjured by Flannery O’Connor at exactly the witching hour of the imagination – lanky, pale David Eugene Edwards, dressed head to toe in black, leads his band, Sixteen Horsepower, through the wilds of sin, redemption and cold sweat, old school Christian salvation.

Like an Appalachian banshee speaking in tongues at the foot of a 10-foot homemade crucifix fashioned from branches gathered from deep in the same dark backwoods that laid its claim to your imagination as an innocent child, Denver gentleman Edwards is a firm believer in the line between good and evil and the transgressions we all make. And he’s got to speak about it.

"Wicked, wicked from the mouth I spout – o Lord/Don let these thoughts come out/My knees they knock and my feet they fail/The thoughts I think I see your face turn pale." – from "Brimstone Rock" on 16 HP’s Low Estate (A&M, 1998)

This is decidedly not the kind of country music you’re used to laying your ears on, unless, that is, you’ve gotten entrenched in the world of old, weird America recently reintroduced to the curious by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Sixteen Horsepower makes music that’s disguised in a superficial antiquity that lyrically explores much deeper into the human interior. Edwards – who sings and plays banjo, concertina, hurdy-gurdy and guitar – is aided and abetted by Jeffrey Paul (vocals, fiddle, guitar, cello and organ), Jean-Yves Tola (drums, percussion, piano) and Pascal Humbert (bass, bass fiddle, guitar). On their most recent (major label!) album, Low Estate, the quartet kicks up a racket that insinuates itself into your imagination before you realize that this is no exercise in vintage kitsch – that Edwards, the grandson of a Nazarene preacher and the son of a biker, is dead-set on the battle for his own soul.

Sixteen Horsepower sneaks into you. Edwards, when the band plays live, gives the appearance of a man literally possessed. He sits, serenely at first, upon a stool, working his way into a curious revival furor, eyes rolling back into his skull as the words come howling from the corners of his conflicted heart.

"Listen closely to me now my darlin’ girl/there’s one who’s out to have you an jus his breath will/Burn your curls." – from "My Narrow Mind"

The intensity of Sixteen Horsepower’s music and message couldn’t have sat well with the powers-that-were at the band’s former label, A&M. The band was dropped when A&M Records was folded into Universal-Seagram’s multinational music peddling machine. Edwards has, in past interviews, consistently expressed a distaste for the manna moves of his sponsoring label.

Apparently, commerce doesn’t necessarily mix well with a true, unironic, uncompromising belief and expression of sin, redemption and such. Sixteen Horsepower was a victim of corporate money-gobbling. Though the band moves considerable "units" across the pond, with its videos appearing on European MTV – an unthinkable possibility on American music television – that success hasn’t translated in the land that created the culture Edwards mines for his antique-brimstone tales.

The band is now regrouping and hitting the road for some too-infrequent area appearances and, if you can take a little sackcloth with your ashes, best you get to the meeting on time. The modern world won’t miss you, and once Edwards and company have their hooks in you, you won’t miss it.

E-mail comments to [email protected]
Scroll to read more Michigan Music articles

Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.