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Published: 2011/09/13
by Brian Robbins

The Gourds
Old Mad Joy

Vanguard Records

Dear Mr. B:

I know that you’ve helped so many over the years with your incredible insight and wisdom, but I don’t think you can do much for me at this point. All I want to do is get this off my chest once and for all, Mr. B – and then I’ll be done with it.

I remember dropping the needle on my brand-new copy of The Band’s Big Pink when it first came out, Mr. B. I remember it like it was yesterday: that excitement of hearing something new and fresh and different … but warm and familiar and as sit-yerself-down welcoming as Aunt Bea’s buttermilk biscuits fresh from the oven, all sweet and steaming. I’d never heard music like that before, but at the same time, I’d been hoping for somebody to play it all my life.

So that’s the deal, Mr. B. I’ve come to realize that there’s never going to be another feeling like that again – that discovery of something so earthy and familiar you felt like the music had always been there and was just waiting for you to come along.

No more Big Pink, Mr. B. Not in my lifetime, anyway.

That’s all. I’ve said it. I’m done. Time to move on.

Thanks for listening, Mr. B –

Resigned in Rapid City

Dear Resigned –

Whoa, whoa, whoa – hold on. Just get ahold of yourself and take note of the date and time because ol’ Mr. B is about to change your life, my friend.

I have two words for you, Resigned: The Gourds. And while we’re at it, here are three more: Old Mad Joy. That’s the name of The Gourds’ new album and I believe it’s got just what you’re looking for.

I know what you’re saying about Big Pink, believe me. Was it rock? No. Well, yeah … but no. And it wasn’t country. And it wasn’t soul or blues or gospel, either. Except it was. But it wasn’t.

And neither is Old Mad Joy. Except it is. And that’s what makes it great, Resigned – it’s that life thing, you see? All the different parts and emotions and shades of light and darkness. (Are you writing this down, or are you getting all glazy-eyed on me?)

Enough of the folderol, let’s talk tunes. One thing you should know right off the bat is that The Gourds recorded in the perfect environment to nail the kind of vibe we’re talking here: Levon Helm’s Barn. I’m serious, Resigned – Levon’s Barn is like a frigging greenhouse for growing albums with long, long roots. It’s a package: you got The Barn itself; you got Larry Campbell – who’s such a talented player himself he ought to be illegal – handling production and assorted cameos on things with strings; and you got Levon’s sound wizard, Justin Guip behind the console. (Justin’s got that Barn figured out – that’s his instrument, man.) I’ve been watching, Resigned, and this I can tell you: anybody who’s gone in there has come out with one of the best-sounding albums of their career – from the Black Crowes to Hot Tuna. You want to talk about the Woodstock mojo of Big Pink? Well, let me tell you something: The Barn’s got it – an extra helping of it. With gravy and your Aunt Bea’s biscuits on the side.

And of course, there’s the Gourds themselves. They’ve been doing what they do for, like, 17 years and all they keep doing is getting better at doing it. Hit “play” and listen: The Gourds come swaggering out of the gate with a blend of street punk gospel (or something like that) on “I Want It So Bad”. Kevin Russell belts out the lead while Claude Bernard’s accordion watches his back. Hand claps, barroom chorus backing vocals, funky/cool rhythm underpinnings by drummer Keith Langford and bassist Jimmy Smith, and a sweet little charge of the neck of Max Johnston’s mandolin all combine to bury this one right square in the middle of your frontal lobes on the first pass.

As I mentioned earlier, Larry Campbell is on both sides of the glass for Old Mad Joy, firing off big chunks of electric guitar here and there (the cocky thump of “Peppermint City”; the Dylan-does-doo-wop of “Drop The Charges”), steel guitar (Kevin Russell’s lovely “Two Sparrows”, for instance), and gentle layers of acoustic guitar all over the place. Of course, The Gourds’ own Max Johnston knows a thing about strings hisself – besides the mando we mentioned a little bit ago, Johnston will break your heart with his violin playing (check out the sweet soul of “Ink And Grief”) and plays a mean guitar when he has a couple hands to spare. Heck, he even takes a lead vocal on “Haunted”. (Smith and Russell swap off leading the way through the remainder of the album’s dozen cuts.)

“Marginalized” is 5 minutes and 30 seconds’ worth of Smith’s lyrics painting a big Technicolor picture that’s almost too real to look at; Campbell twangs out some baritone guitar against Bernard’s wall of soaring B-3 with little passages of Spanish guitar woven through by Russell. The chord and rhythm change-ups of “You Must Not Know” will keep you on your toes, but not in a disconcerting way. Russell and his mando bare it all on “Eyes Of A Child”, leading the rest of the band to a place of salvation. “Melchert” is all crazy talk – but wicked cool at the same time; and if you were wondering just how rough and gritty a bunch of rockers the Gourds can be, listen to “Drop What I’m Doing” – cowbell and all. Ah-wooooooooo!

Boy, re-reading all that, Resigned, I feel like asking myself: is there anything The Gourds can’t do? Well, I’m sure there is – but who’d want to hear it, anyway?

The point is, you want a modern day Big Pink, you say? I got it right here, my friend. Old Mad Joy is one of those albums that’s new to your ears but known to your soul. Enjoy.

Your ol’ pal,
Mr. B

Comments

There are 2 comments associated with this post

blelferd September 15, 2011, 19:01:31

Sounds like crazy talk to me.

sammy September 20, 2011, 10:00:41

Damn! Can’t wait to hear it after this review. This review style is always kinda quirky, but well done here. I’ve always been a big fan of this band, but have lost touch with the Gourds over the last record or two. Here’s hoping this puts me (and many others) back on the bandwagon!

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