This album – with its spooky Nosferatu with a 1940’s cruiser cover -- was released independently in 2006 but, with the passing of the beloved Levon Helm – this album by Bow Thayer deserves another listen.
For now let’s focus on Bow Thayer and clarify that even though I do like the cover art – this is not gothic rock by any stretch of the imagination. It is backwoods, timeless and yes, haunting in its beauty.
Track one – “Got My Attention” - is a little Tom Petty sounding but with the addition of a savoring harmonica, sweet acoustic guitars and steady Levon Helm drum – it’s Tom Petty filtered through the creative juices of Bow Thayer -- no mistaking that.
From what I could learn this is the third Bow Thayer solo album and since this album's 2006 release he has newer, additional material worth a listen.
Thayer is based out of Stockbridge, Vermont and while all the songs were written by Bow, the feel, ambience of the music and clever tales each track weaves is in a solid Americana world that is the signature sound of The Band.
Perhaps – how The Band could have sounded had they all survived into 2006. Reality being what it is, we must rely on the interpretations of artists who have absorbed the atmosphere of their musical legacy -- the genius and the scars. Oh, yes...the scars too.
“Thinner,” is propelled by a driving sound filled with happiness. Levon’s drums smile as he plays them. That, of course, is what made Levon Helm's percussion so distinctive. Tunes like this have been sung for decades but they are always winners when played live and the audience just wants to leave their real grind behind for a few hours, sip some brew and melt into a fine performance.
“Wingless Angels” opens with haunting acoustic guitars and the interplay is entertaining. Bow has the magic to transform his voice to fit the tunes and it can often sound as if there is more than one lead singer in this band. On this track, Bow is mining a Steve Earle mother lode.
Just enough country in his vocals to keep it anchored as an American true blood tune that never veers into corn or sappiness. The guitars half way into the song grunge and twist followed by the intensity of lyrics like: “I dipped my cup in holy water—dipped my crown of thorns…”
“The Way That It Swings,” is jaunty with what sounds like brass with a jazzy undertone married to a Levon Helm shuffle. I don’t have the album’s credits in front of me but this would have been a tune that could have been inspired by a Garth Hudson. This reminds me a lot of Australia’s Black Sorrows and the vocals of Joe Camilleri. That would be a compliment since that band has been performing and recording successfully since 1983.
One of the most popular songs on this Bow Thayer collection is “Snake Bite,” and it’s snaking violins – no pun intended – that helps move this tune along at a breath taking pace with clever lyrics, a fevered arrangement and unified vocals. The violin showcased in this track smokes and is worth the price of admission.
With the tune “Stoned Kid,” deep bellowing saxes and the combined vocals are warm and melodic in the classic tradition of The Band. This tune earns its sheepskin to be played beside the best of The Band.
According to information I read on this band – it’s been told that Bow needed someone who could play like Levon Helm. An associate said “Why don’t you just get the man himself?” Turns out this associate of Bow’s was David Rizzuti – who had recently worked a session with Levon. Fate?
So, the story goes, Levon Helm himself came from his home in Woodstock, NY in an ice storm to Boston. While recording this LP, Levon related those around him some tales about The Band and one was about the late Richard Manuel who would often say ‘spend it all,’ whenever things got dicey. The name of the album was born and Levon was drummer for all ten tracks contained. "Spend It All," is the result of this fine work during these days. Because Levon was a consummate professional he nailed most of his work in one take.
“Nor Easter Snow,” is another song that will remind loyalists of The Band. Now, don't get me wrong, this is a band that is not imitating. They are just in that same genre, they mine the same vein. I guess having Levon Helm playing results in some of that magic dust rubbing off on every musician in attendance. The banjos, vocals, the drive of the rural music, the guitars winding through the melody – just a delight to wrap your ears around on a cold evening.
This is a real jewel. It’s what made The Band such a highly respected unit and Bow Thayer captures every drop here with “Nor Easter Snow.”
“Road to Oblivion,” is a little more down to earth and twangs. Lyrics are literate and well thought out. Perhaps the secret to why all these songs along with Levon, weaves a tight stitch throughout this album.
These are not throwaway tunes, everything has been carefully nurtured until they took shape in a manner that only the greats from the past would have approved. This song is old timey but, in the same breath it’s not. It’s music that is older than most of us breathing here today. It’s something to be proud of when a modern day musician can interpret, place his own signature on it, and carry it forth with such commanding artistry.
The CD “Spend It All,” only has ten tracks and it winds up with the gentle banjo notes of “Jewel.”
On this track, there is no Tom Petty influence, no suggestions of The Band. It bares the musical soul of Bow Thayer who would have earned a wide smile from The Carter Family, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger for this effort. This song isn't meant to be top 25 -- it's meant to be cherished and kept on a personal basis. Those who find it -- know what I mean.
This music may never capture a wide audience for popularity or even a Grammy Award. But, when people move on to other music decades from now, and the Grammy Award is dusty and forgotten like the many earned by so many artists in the past who have stepped back into the shadows and have been forgotten – this music will be burrowed away somewhere and continued to be played and appreciated by an audience not yet born. It will always have spirit.
"Jewel” concludes with a spider web of notes and then suddenly like the beating of butterfly wings – falls silent.
As mentioned, the album was originally released in November 2006 – that’s six years ago. But, it’s fresh, new to my ears, and anyone else who has not heard it. Yes, Levon Helm’s name helped pinch my curiosity – but, there are many Bow Thayer albums available and I will be doing lots of exploring.
The music can be sampled on MySpace Music. In an effort to support independent music -- Bow Thayer has several albums available for less than a pint of blood on Bandcamp.
The band as it is comprised today are Bow Thayer and the Perfect Trainwreck & include: Bow Thayer - lead vocals, electric banjo, guitars. Jeff Berlin - drums. Jeremy Moses Curtis -bass, backing vocals. Chris McGandy - pedal steel and James Rohrorgan - piano. Check their website for tour dates.
Disclaimer: Support Independent Music -- The opinion expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression.
John Apice – Contributor – No Depression – December 2013