You would think that after multiple albums and seventeen years of touring coast-to-coast and across the pond, the Gourds would have it all down. Well, they do: they project the alt/indie/roots sensibilities of their hometown, Austin, Texas, better than any music group going. They are also the quirkiest bunch of guys you’ll ever meet. Playing 150 gigs a year while helping raise 12 offspring among them will do that to a band.
But from the first notes of “I Want It So Bad,” it’s clear this is a whole ‘nother Gourds on Old Mad Joy.
Their previous recordings were all done on the fly, close to home, assembled down and dirty. “We were DIY all the way,” explained bassist and co-composer Jimmy Smith. This one was done in Woodstock, New York, where the band known as the Band articulated American roots music in a series of recordings, some with their occasional front man, Bob Dylan. The studio was The Barn, a.k.a Levon Helm Studios, the timber-framed recording facility attached to the home of Levon Helm, where the legendary drummer and music icon celebrates the best in contemporary American music at his weekly Midnight Ramble shows.
Some mighty great music has already been captured on tape at the Barn. Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Keith Richards, the Bar-Kays, Eric Clapton, Hubert Sumlin, My Morning Jacket, Elvis Costello, and the Black Crowes have all recorded albums there.
But a great facility was just the start. Producer Larry Campbell held the key to make it all work. That should be no surprise, since Campbell is the musical director of the Midnight Rambles, producer of Helm’s records and guitarist in his band. Campbell brought an impressive resume as a musical MVP to the sessions, having spent eight years in Dylan’s band, playing with such luminaries as Buddy Miller and Kinky Friedman, and even doing a short stretch as part of the Sir Douglas Quintet with Doug Sahm, the late, great Texas Tornado who was the Gourds’ spiritual mentor when they were starting out.
“Coach” Campbell, as front man Kevin (Shinyribs) Russell calls him, “found the strengths in our weaknesses and the vulnerabilities in our strengths and challenged our pre-determined aesthetic sensibilities,” states Russell. “His qualification and compassion instilled in us a desire to achieve more than we thought we could as a combo and as individuals. He used the templates and elements of our original demos to create something novel, intriguing and much more interesting.”
Think of Old Mad Joy as beyond Gourdian. The basics were already in place: Claude Bernard’s accordion and keyboards bring on the caustic boogie and blown out bellows. Kevin Russell’s original brand of gospel spirituals contrast with Jimmy Smith’s dark-and-twisted imagery that suggests whistling while walking down a dark alley. Max Johnston’s multiple-instrumental arsenal including banjo, rubboard, mandolin, and fiddle keeps the sound honest. Keith Langford’s drumming puts the whole train into locomotion.
The songs take that sound to the next level. “Two Sparrows” is nothing short of transcendent, and immediately stands as a timeless piece of wisdom, no matter how fresh it really is. “Drop the Charges” affirms the band’s wickedly incendiary core, as does “Peppermint City,” an autobiographical saga about touring and “playing a shithole gig.” explained Russell.
Because it’s the Gourds, bizarre imagery is sprinkled throughout, with references to Byzantine topple, tectonic plates and other weirdness. At the same time, the stunning simplicity of “Eyes of A Child,” the classic three-chord rock and yowl of “Drop What I’m Doing,” the ruminating twang of “Haunted,” and the contemplative “Ink and Grief” are about as straight-ahead as music gets, thanks to Campbell’s stellar production.
Russell and Smith share the vocal leads, as usual, with Bernard and Johnston occasionally chiming in. But everyone sings throughout the album, including drummer Langford, transforming a full-throated band into a glorious chorus that happens to drawl.
The players are busting with pride over how it all went down. “I love all those records we’ve done up to this point,” Jimmy Smith said. “But this one, we had somebody to expedite our talent. He got our attention.”
“It was like a four point shot,” Keith Langford chimed in.
The Gourds went to Woodstock as the great Austin band. They emerged from the experience sounding like the great American band, with Old Mad Joy as their calling card.