Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Big Al Hall and the Marching Rams The Marching Rams
Onward, Soldiers Ghosts in this Town
Charlie the Horse When U Gonna Luv Somebody?

Three new releases from Wilmington bands highlight the renaissance of roots and Americana music in Carolina’s port city. The most traditional of these is also in some ways the most dynamic. The Marching Rams marks the first full-length effort from Alex “Big Al” Hall’s new supergroup of Wilmington area old-time and traditional musicians featuring Hall on banjo and fiddle, Lincoln Morris on guitar, Jones Smith on bass, and Kevin Rhodes on trap set and accordion.

Although Hall aligns himself philosophically with much of the post-punk rediscovery of old-time music, he’s certainly no recent convert to the genre. Having spent much of his youth traveling to fiddlers’ conventions and traditional music festivals around the US searching for the pre-war arrangements of mountain songs, Hall has become as fine an interpreter and arranger of Southern and American folkways as you’ll find performing anywhere.

And it’s just these hard-won bona fides that allow Hall such freedom and joy of expression. Recorded live over the course of a single day in David Lowery’s Sound of Music studio in Richmond, Virginia, the 12 song collection burns away the layers of accumulated age and presents each song as if it were freshly written. On the oft-covered “Fall on My Knees,” for example, Hall’s rich and aching tenor lays bare the stark pain lurking beneath the easy humor of the lover’s lament. The collection’s two most inspired performances, a spirited update of Ola Belle Reed’s arrangement of “Boat’s Up the River” and a decidedly raucous version of “Red Rocking Chair,” find the Rams ready to explode into the ether while Hall’s assured phrasing keeps them grounded and centered. Indeed, throughout The Marching Rams, Hall wisely contrasts his weary, lonesome vocal phrasing with the big-tent percussive power of Morris, Smith, and Rhodes. As a result, the tunes rarely throw all their energy behind a single emotional pitch or vamp broadly as affectation. They discover, instead, that dusty patch of ground where we all go about fussing over our own lives.

Rhodes and Smith also provide the rhythm and roll for Onward, Soldiers’ debut platter Ghosts in This Town. At their best, Sean Thomas Gerard’s songs effortlessly marry sweet, progressive electric folk to the nostalgic pangs of traditional arrangements, calling to mind both the Black Crowes looser B-sides as well as the white-knuckle gothic of Texas surf. Gerard’s speakers seem at times young men frustrated by a world they want desperately to love and at others to be old souls slowly rediscovering the simple beauties. Regardless, Gerard’s ghosts are inveterate talkers and showman, drunk with the possibilities of the material world around them to broadcast their poetry. Thus in “Let the Time Roll By” parking meters become microphones just as jailed midwives are commandeered as choristers. In “Relic” a picture frame transforms into the pursed lips of a lover’s kiss and, later, a mother’s promise.

Throughout Ghosts, Onward, Soldiers builds its aesthetic on a fever dream of movement. Gerard’s anxiously strummed acoustic guitar parries meaningfully with Rhodes’ fluttering brush and stick work. Rather than simple wanderlust, however, the songs here feel pursued. As if a dark and ugly past is always threatening to overtake Gerard’s cast of highway ghosts and sidewalk preachers as they journey to the end of each coda.

Newcomers Charlie the Horse, on the other hand, are totally unencumbered by the weight of the past, focused as they are on a vivid and tumbling present. Although the least assured of these new releases, When U Gonna Luv Somebody? represents the boldest statement of intent among the three. Frontman Andrew Zucchino’s clear and confident vocal delivery brings to mind Adam Stephens of Two Gallants, but where Stephens often employs his desperate growl as a siege engine of anger and regret, Zucchino seems content to serenade the stars with his love-struck vibrato. As a collective Charlie the Horse already possesses an impressively diverse color palette intended for a wide canvas. The results can be ponderous at times, but when everything clicks, as on the bustling stomp of “Thunderstorm” or the slow burn of the stereolit “Fever,” Somebody demands full and careful attention. Charlie the Horse has quickly built a strong reputation as live performers in Wilmington, so it’s heartening to find how much of that live energy the quintet has succeeding in transferring to wax.

Charlie the Horse will be opening for Sinful Savage Tigers Thursday, May 13th at the Cave in Chapel Hill. As well as for Jeremy Blair From Effingham, Saturday May 15th at the Broad Street Café in Durham. --Hidden Tiger

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