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Published: 2010/11/29
by Brian Robbins

Ronnie Penque Band
Only Road Home

Bayland Records

Ronnie Penque’s musical resume dates back a ways – including a 25-year stint with the NJ-based Dead cover band Ripple and 3 years on bass and vocals with Melvin Seals & JGB. You may know him best, however, as bassist/vocalist with The New Riders of the Purple Sage, providing both rhythmic foundations and improv inspirations galore. Only Road Home, the debut release from The Ronnie Penque Band, is the latest entry on that resume and it’s an impressive one.

Here we find Penque using his time between New Riders gigs to try on many hats – bassist, vocalist, bandleader, songwriter, and producer – and he wears them all well. _Only Road Home _ is far from a one-man show, however. Penque has assembled a talented band who never strays far from their just-can’t-help-it Dead vibe while cranking out an album of solid original tunes with loads of available exits into jamspace. One note of explanation: the aforementioned Dead vibe is just that – a vibe, a feel, a groove that connects the album’s 11 cuts. There’s no denying where the band’s roots lie, but at the same, they are totally their own sonic satellite zinging around the Dead-inspired universe.

Check it out: guitarist Chris Penque (yep – Ron’s bro) could teach a course in the Bob Weir hybrid rhythm/lead method, but he absolutely cranks on the diesel chug of “Gonna Roll”, as well. Lead picker Andy Trister is no stranger to Jerrytone (“Santa Ana Wind” is loaded with “Deal” bounce), but it’s one flavor in the spice rack for him. Listen to Trister’s sweet acoustic work on “One More For Me” or his pure picking on “Circles” and you’ll realize his versatility. Same for keyboardist Jeff Pearlman: there are times (“Mallory”, for instance) when you’d swear there’s some serious B-3 channeling of the late, great Merl Saunders going on, but Pearlman doles out all manner of ivoryness in the course of the album. Meanwhile, Jeff’s wife Katie combines all the vocal soul of a Donna Jean Godchaux with solid drum work. Just sit back and listen as she digs into the rave-up in the final minutes of “Little Soul”. ‘Nuff said.

And then there’s Mr. Ronnie himself. His songs on Only Road Home range from entertaining and cryptic tales to feeling like disarmingly open journal entries. Penque is definitely a believer in the songs-come-first-and-the-jams-will-follow school: not a single tune on the album comes across as an excuse to justify a wank session. He knows his craft, from story-telling verses to gotcha-singing-along choruses. And, yes – even though the title track is a get-out-yer-hankerchiefs heart-twister in the “Black Muddy River”/”So Many Roads” vein, it’s a totally Ronnie Penque tune. Some things you just can’t escape and there’s no point in trying.

By the way: don’t get the impression that RPB goes out of their way to avoid jams. Get yourself lost in the swoops and shape-shifts of “American Junkie” – this bunch knows how to get back home when the time comes.

All in all, Only Road Home is a great effort from a band that doesn’t try to deny their influences, but instead treats them as lessons well learned. The Ronnie Penque Band has managed to create that rarest of beasts: both fresh and familiar; both well-crafted and adventurous.

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