A Righteous Music Experience!
Listening to Dust Bowl Lover, the second CD release by The Gravy Boys, wraps me in another era and locale much like reading John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, a novel that clearly inspired many of the songs on Dust Bowl Lover, except that I don’t usually feel compelled to get up from my chair and start doing a bold impression of an Irish jig between chapters of Steinbeck’s masterpiece as I do for particular tracks on The Gravy Boys’ CD. Dust Bowl Lover, produced along with John Plymale, follows on the heels of this Triangle-area based band’s 2007 debut release, Working the Angels for Handouts. Whereas the first CD covered an array of rural and southern themes, Dust Bowl Lover situates itself mostly in American settings of the early 1900s.
It’s not just the carefully wrought lyrics of the songs on Dust Bowl Lover that hold my imagination captive, but it is also the fine, well-tuned and tight playing of the members of this band that bring such inspiration and fire to their songs. Guitarist, Steve Storms delivers intricate solos masterfully – providing a textured backdrop between verses. Joe Spagnardi cranks out steady and rhythmic grooves on his guitar, while mandolin player, Bill Spagnardi lends the “high-lonesome” vocals and high-spirited melodies to songs, and upright bassist, Tom Spagnardi, drives a soulful, and at times jazzy, snap through The Gravy Boys brand of “Acoustic Americana Music.” Steve (Cele) Celestini sings powerful and emotionally evocative lead vocals on nearly all of the tracks, but for songs where he’s joined by the whole band. (Additionally, Dust Bowl Lover features guest musicians Chandler Holt, banjo; Allyn Love, pedal steel guitar; Bobby Britt, fiddle; and Andy Kleindinst, trombone.)
The title track, “Dust Bowl Lover,” showcases Cele’s ability to wield the utmost control over his vocals. His voice conveys both compassion and remorse in this elegant, slow-tempo song about losing a girlfriend who leaves the panhandle of Texas during the Dust Bowl exodus to California for hopes of a better life. While the songs on the CD are rooted in a specific historical time and place, the themes still address the trials of everyday loves and losses. When Cele sings “I should jump a rail and chase you . . . [f]oolish pride won’t let me leave this place I plowed and cursed to call my own,” I imagine not only the guy and girl of this song, but other young couples facing the dilemma of geographical distance, of staying in their hometowns or moving on.
Whereas all of the songs on Dust Bowl Lover deserve listening to, their range from ballads, to honky tonk, and bluegrass paves the way to call out favorites. In addition to the title track, I love Joe’s “Take Me By the Hand,” which has the band working their instruments and vocals in some serious down home blues with finesse and swing. Tom slaps his upright bass throughout while Cele growls and sings about the double entendres of salvation. From the Christian mother of the singer as a young boy, to the “Devil’s temptress, just a red dress and a kiss” during his adult years, and finally to the angels’ call as he nears his death, each beckons the singer to “take me by the hand” to lead him to their variation of salvation. Throughout the song, Steve plays mean blues riffs on his guitar, once again showcasing his mastery.
Dust Bowl Lover also features delightful songs, such as “Model T Ford,” written by Bill Spagnardi. A rockabilly groove and the polyphonic sounds of Dixie jazz give energy to this playful song about the joys of owning a new Model T Ford. I haven’t yet heard The Gravy Boys perform “Model T Ford” live, so I am eagerly waiting for the occasion. Of all the CD’s songs that hark back to another place and time, both “This Long Life,” by Steve Storms, and “Happy,” By Steve (Cele) Celestini, have a modern feel. “This Long Life” reveals the troubled spirit of a man looking back on his mistakes, maybe even stuck in an addicted rut, while longing for the uplifted spirit promised by “golden sun . . . if the light would just shine on me, I’ll carry this burden no more.” Cele delivers this ballad convincingly with his deep, baritone voice that contrasts well with the song’s more upbeat bridge. “Happy” describes the inexplicable feeling of finding one’s true soul mate. The alt-rock rhythm of this song fills in its sparse lyrics and chorus, each which cleverly suggests, that indeed there aren’t enough words to speak for love. (Although, “happy” is one enough in this song.)
While The Gravy Boys draws their music and sound from a well-catalogued range of country musicians, the influence of the blues is also apparent in their syncopation and swing. Blues singers, such as Buddy Guy come to mind in Cele’s knack for showing a change in attitude or emotion in just one single note or growl. And, I suppose that’s what appeals to me about The Gravy Boys – they perform acoustic Americana music that truly is American in its soul and breadth of style while also writing songs that tell stories well. The variations of style within the Americana genre, coupled with the bands strong playing, singing, and harmonizing, makes Dust Bowl Lover a worthwhile CD for any listener of acoustic music.