Music, like language, is an ever-evolving phenomenon. Any attempt to rigidly define a genre is, to my mind, as arrogant and ultimately futile as, for example, proscribing "proper" English. I confess that I am a musical omnivore, with a fascination for music as a particular expression of a time and place. I love the old blues masters. But I'm equally enthralled by the cross-pollination that continually produces the colorful garden that is contemporary North American popular music.
Big House is a self-labeled "blues" band from Nashville via Bakersfield, California. A friend handed me their third CD, "Woodstock Nation," with a question: "Is this blues?" After playing the CD once through, I dropped the question and listened again--several times.
Lead vocalist/guitarist Monty Byron and keyboardist/slide guitarist Dave Neuhauser comprise the core of Big House; they've been writing and playing music together for fifteen years. Bassist Steve Vines and drummer Bernie Rappa complete the current manifestation of the band. Together they form a tight ensemble, at times reminiscent of a fine jazz quartet. There are no "stars" here, no ego-tripping showmanship. These musicians clearly respect the part each contributes to the whole. Monty Byron wrote all of the songs but one on this CD. His lyrics address common themes of love and angst with an emerging socially conscious sensibility not often heard in mainstream music.
The Nashville connection as most evident in the melodic lines and sweet, close harmonies of "Lonely Shade of Blue" and "Don't Do Me Any Favors", two ballads of lost love. Other songs range from rockabilly ("He Don't Need to Know") to bluesy rock ("Woodstock Nation") to trucking songs (Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On"). The "hidden track", the only instrumental on this CD, even offers a taste of funky jazz.
Byron's voice is, to my ear, more country than bluesy, although I suspect such distinctions are more useful to marketers and promoters than to listeners. I find his strong voice warm and soulful, even a bit raspy where the music requires. David Neuhauser's organ-playing adds a sometimes bluesy, sometimes jazzy, flavor to most of the tracks, while Bernie Rappa plays intricate jazz and driving rock rhythms with equal finesse. Steve Vines' bass provides a solid, nonintrusive ground that is always appropriate to the whole. In addition to his organ playing, Neuhauser plays an emotionally powerful but subtly refined electric slide ("I Walk Alone").
Nashville is, musically speaking, a big town, home to the primarily acoustic fiddles, dobros, mandolins and guitars of "progressive country" (of which I am quite fond) and the often overproduced sound and cliched lyrics of mainstream country music (of which I am far less fond). But, if you think you know Nashville, you could be wrong.
Big House is a band whose music is too varied and idiosyncratic to label neatly. The guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps says of his own music: "Is it blues? I don't know." And I still can't answer my friend's question. Give "Woodstock Nation" a listen and decide for yourself. Better still, just listen. "Woodstock Nation" can be purchased from several of the online record stores (Amazon, CDNow, Tower, etc.) or from Dead Reckoning Records at www.deadreckoning.com.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Peter Oman, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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