It was 8th November 2016, and I was sat at a bar in a plush hotel: JW Marriott’s, Main Street, Houston. It was Election Night for the USA, and the long-awaited result would soon be with us. It had been an unprecedented election campaign, two candidates polarising the nation as never before. There were many people sat at the bar, but three guys provided, between them, a loud uncensored commentary on the result proceedings. They were dressed in the corporate uniform of Ralph Lauren shirts, Chinos, brown belt and brown shoes. Three rich white guys. They talked animatedly about the lucky people who would get the contracts when Trump’s wall was commissioned, if he was elected. I became a voyeur, and felt uncomfortable with what I perceived was opinionated rhetoric.
Earlier that month we had been on a road trip. First stop, Dallas, to the book depository, see the grassy knoll, and learn about the assassination of JFK. Memphis was next; a trip to Graceland, Stax, and Sun Records followed. We visited the Lorraine Motel, which provides a backdrop for the Civil Rights Museum. It's a fitting tribute to Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who was shot at the motel on 4th April 1968 whilst visiting to support sanitary workers on strike over equal pay.
The road trip provided a unique view of modern American cultural history. It was fresh in my mind on Election Night, and as the TV announced Trump had won, the three supporters at the bar whooped with gusto. Three JD’s were ordered. Looking at the TV, and holding his shot high, one toasted, “God Bless America”…and so the first new song for the album was written.
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‘God Bless America’ is an album full of colourful narratives – both real and imagined – deep grooves, intricate guitar work and an array of sparkling tones.
It invites us to immerse ourselves in a late night feel, full of Mark Knopfler style whispered and conversational vocals, that emphasize lyrical meaning and fit perfectly on top of some subtle band interplay.
A 4 times British Blues Awards nominee, The Mighty Bosscats leader Richard Townend has the musical theory to back up his story telling abilities, as he melds his lyrics and hooks with a sparkling array of guitar tones.
Whether it’s the J.J. Cale style groove of ‘Fault Line’ with some lovely picking and an unexpected coda, or the polar opposite almost anthemic guitar break on ‘Plenty Of Time’, The Mighty Bosscats revel on an album that fits the Americana mould, but stretches the genre in unexpected directions.
The real key to this album is the beautiful sonic exploration, be it on acoustic and electric guitars or Dobro and pedal steel.
Listen for example to the acoustic sweep of ‘Don’t Run Away’ with additional harmonies, or the confluence of guitars and harmonies on ‘Mr. Bird’, which at times evokes an Eastern George Harrison feel, and you are hearing a band shaping their own sound and musical direction.
Then there’s the rhythmic quality and drummer Glen Buck’s lightness of touch that underpins so many of Townend’s ideas.
The real triumph here, is that despite mining familiar musical territory – they straddle the already over populated field of acoustic blues, roots and country rock genres – the band conjures up something unique.
And while many Americana bands aim for catchy hooks and Nashville’s middle ground, Townend writes on his own terms.
He sometimes sugars his hooks with Phil Wilson and Philip Ockelford’s bv’s and makes diffident use of Allan Kelly’s aching pedal steel – as on ‘When Your Gone’ and ‘Walking In The Sun’ – but there’s both an emotive pull and a sense of integrity to songs like ‘She’s Gone’: “Catch a train to a different town, 20 years of luggage straining to bring her down.”
Then there’s the uplifting feel, steely Dobro and Greg Camburn’s nuanced horn part on ‘Walking In The Sun’, which contribute to a fatter sound with jazzy undertones which could be Sting.
‘God Bless America’ gradually reveals its hidden treasure. The title track for example, initially sounds a little overwrought and relies on a harmony-heavy hook, but repeated plays reveal the subtle rhythms beneath a stomping bass line, and what sounds like a layered mandolin.
The album takes us on a linear journey from the acoustic-into-melodic hook of ‘All Falling Down’, to the outstanding and hypnotic ‘Plenty Of Time’.
Townend’s close-to-the-mic Knopfler style phrasing is perfectly offset by a throbbing bass line, on a well crafted song that emphasizes both melodic beauty and sonic clarity. The band slips into a deep groove that percolates and bubbles up into a climactic guitar break. It comes to rest in the kind of ethereal featherlight drop-down that Jerry Garcia might have appreciated. Splendid stuff sir!
He’s also smart enough to stay within his vocal range and draw the listener in. And he does precisely that on the beautifully brush stroked rhythms and harmony intro of ‘Down Town Parking Lot’, which cleverly levers us into a track in which a brief Dobro break promises further exotic musical promise.
The band duly delivers with Townend’s non-judgemental observational lyrics over a swaying rhythm bolstered by a pristine solos and a lovely accapella finish. Play it a few times and you’ll be addicted.
In fact it’s so good that the following gospel influenced ‘Hold My Hand’ sounds a little forced, if only because even though it neatly bookends the album, it doesn’t top what went before.
‘God Bless America’ might be more of a significant title than Richard Townend possibly realizes. His music is original, thoughtful, sometimes eclectic, superbly arranged and always well played. And if it’s initially aimed at Americana, roots and blues fans, then he’s probably quietly sitting at home nursing a glass of red, confident in the knowledge that his songs will hold up to a much broader scrutiny way beyond a niche market.
In sum, this is a delightful gem of an album in search of a patient listenership. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 20:00
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