About fifteen years ago, while most of the music-loving fans in the world had discarded the poodle perms, black leather pants and the gaudy turquoise and silver baubles associated with hair metal to embrace the slackerisms and flannel workshirts associated with grunge, a different sort were looking at huge belt buckles, cowboy boots, and pedal steel guitars. These folks were encountering, then hopping aboard the alt.country trend, a musical sub-genre championed by the likes of Uncle Tupelo, Jayhawks, Eric Ambel, Blue Rodeo and many other lesser-known acts. While grunge was known as bare-bones, meat-and-potatoes rock with no frills, the purveyors of the alt.country trend took “bare bones” a bit further, with most adopting a sound best described as Johnny Cash on meth as performers and devotees yearned for the perfect blend between traditional country circa 1958-1965 and rock and roll derived from the days of Sun records revved up with a post-punk modern feel. Though grunge also had a primitive feel, it had it’s own sound. In contrast, while the best alt.country and roots bands filtered their music through the prisms of punk and post-punk, an equal amount were enamored with simply striving to emulate their ’50’s and ’60’s heroes down to the bent notes on their paisley Telecasters. Though bands of this nature were found mostly on the second-tier, even the edgiest bands such as Uncle Tupelo showed their indebtedness to their heroes from Nashville on their sleeves and were careful not to stray too far from their country inspirations. It was the same catch-22 which modern blues players find themselves. How much do they honor their past and provide a touchstone to fans, while still blazing a trail and progressing their music so new generations will find elements to enjoy?
Seeking to provide not only an answer to that question but also a new album for your listening pleasure is Laurence “Luckyman” Beall. While Beall is a tad mysterious about his musical past, his bio tells a story about some hard years as a traveling musician after leaving home at a young age, with much time spent in menial jobs while striving to succeed as a musician at night. It’s the traditional hard-luck musician story, one which many of today’s legends can probably tell. That even his background story has somewhat of a familiar ring to it speaks volumes about the music he lays down on his recent release.
The first song of Beall’s new CD is entitled Hoe Cake and is a rockabilly/country rocker beginning with some great chicken-picking guitar work dovetailing into Beall’s vocals which give Beall a sound akin to an amped-up Chris Isaak. A great addition to the usual rockabilly groove is some great Hammond B-3 organ played by Dan Hocter. Mr. Lonely is the next tune and is a slow love song in a ’50’s R&B style with a tinge of downhome country added for flavor. It shows the versatility in Beall’s voice as he sounds right at home singing old school R&B and should he ever feel the need to record an album of R&B standards (or write new ones) he would no doubt find an audience for it. Again, Hocter’s skillful Hammond work adds an interesting dimension to the song. Pure country is the only thing anyone could call the next song, Blue Curtains, which is sung by Beall in a mumbled voice as if he was imitating Mick Jagger’s vocals on the Rolling Stones’ song Faraway Eyes. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong tack as Beall’s voice is good enough on its’ own and doesn’t need any schtick to make the song work. Great guitar work on the song, though, with Beall playing a tasty solo – just enough to make you go “wow” then it’s back into the song which is the mark of a skillful, savvy player. Drummer Ardie Dean seems to drag at pointsthroughout the song, which is unfortunate. While leaving a mistake here or there lends an off-the-cuff air to a record, maybe Beall should get a studio drummer for his next record. The next song She Make a Bulldog Break His Chain is styled like an old blues with Beall once again slurring his voice a little bit. Kind of weak songwise as a generic blues isn’t quite the same quality of material considering Beall’s work so far. Wanted By The Police is next and again follows the blues format, this time with Beall playing the slide guitar, which he handles quite well to be honest. He does nothing too original with it, but he hits the cliche blues licks well and makes them his own for the most part. The next song Five Bucks an Hour serves Beall better. It’s a slow-burner with some great smoldering Hammond organ and some great guitar licks by Beall with plenty of reverb on the guitar. Great spooky sounding track and as I listen to this album, the Isaak comparison is getting more and more apt. Isaak also features a mix of blues, country and intense balolad work, just like Beall is doing on this album. Not a bad goal to shoot for as Isaak is a great artist but I have heard nothing totally original since this CD started, though the music is competent enough. It’s back to the old rockabilly groove for Goin’ to Brownsville and Beall handles it smoothly, if nondescriptly. Tell Me Why is next and returns to the ’50’s R&B style Beall worked earlier, complete with Hammond organ backdrop and romantic crooning. Yeah, this is Isaak’s territory but Beall does sound great when he sings in this style. No one should strive to be a one-trick pony, but if he did a whole album like this or established a style built around this type of tune, no doubt he would get some notice for it. This is a top pick for best song so far though at over seven minutes long it does get a little bit tedious by the end. Four minutes, maybe four minutes and thirty seconds should have been the stopping point. I Wanna Get Wicked Wif’ You Baby is a decent mid-tempo rocker in a swamp blues style. Beall’s vocals kind of get lost in that his howls and yelps don’t really show fire, it’s almost as if he’s tryinbg a little too hard and it shows. He wants to rock and get all Jagger/John Fogerty, but it just seems forced though the band does a decent Creedence choogle. The song Blues Ain’t All Blue is up next and features Beall doing a country blues pastiche. Not bad, but at this point a lot of this just seems like a genre exercise for Beall, to show he can hit various types of American music styles with enough of the standard moves to get by with nothing to separate him from the pack of artists already mining this territory. That he does it well may not make a difference. When your playing relatively simple music you have to have an extraordinary personality to put the music over. You can only cram so many notes into an old-style blues guitar solo, you better say something special or spice it up somehow to make yourself stand out. Unfortunately, Beall is competent, but not much more than that. Tattoo Girl is next and features Beall playing more blues. Ten Foot Tall Blues is up next followed by Stompin’ Like A Zombie, of which the latter is the most adventurous – more of a garage rocker ala Bobby Fuller than anything shown previously by Beall.
While this album is enjoyable enough, especially for those who are fans of Americana and roots music, there is almost an air of disappointment one gets after listening to it. For all his talent as a guitar player and singer, there is nothing really distinctive about the record to make it stand apart from the many other bands who play roots, rockabilly or blues. And Beall tries, just not hard enough. The fact Beall can do it it all with a modicum of talent may be one hook he can use, but the fact is he does them competently, but there is nothing that stands out. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad album by any means. Beall does show flashes of having some real talent and, depending on the format, may end up coming up with just the formula that makes his music click with the public. As it stands now, however, there is just competence, and that’s really not enough to differentiate his music from the plethora of roots sounds already out there fighting for airtime and your hard earned dollar.