Tarbox Ramblers – Packing the pub
Bring up the word “chemistry” in conversation, and chances are good that someone will cringe and relate a terrible story about an experiment gone awry in a high school or college class.
Four years ago, however, a new Irish pub in Boston called the Burren decided to conduct a little experiment of their own. They invited the Tarbox Ramblers to play the club one night, and what resulted is a steamrolling Saturday-night residency that just won’t quit. Four years later, there’s a line stretching down the street (no matter how cold), mostly college kids and post-grads eager to check out what has become one of Boston’s hottest pubs, and one of Boston’s hottest bands. The Burren holds approximately 150 people; every Saturday the place is filled to capacity and then some. Can’t get in? Don’t worry. The band also plays every Friday at the Green Street Grill in nearby Cambridge.
The Tarbox Ramblers whip up an infectious hillbilly stomp that is deeply rooted in the blues. Ten of twelve songs on their self-titled debut, released in April on Rounder, are traditional blues spirituals and a touch of old jug-band music. “We’re not a bunch of Wisconsin yodelers,” singer-guitarist Michael Tarbox says with a smile. “You add and you subtract from your influences, but we really try to create a sound of our own with these songs.”
The album was recorded live in the studio in nearby Somerville and kicks off with “Jack Of Diamonds”, first discovered by Tarbox when he heard one of his favorite musicians, Spider John Koerner, cover it. The band’s most recognizable track is probably “St. James Infirmary”, an oft-covered, slow, sludgy number (yes, that’s a compliment) tailor-made for dim lights and thick smoke — a guarantee at the Burren, by the way.
Other highlights include the fantastic call-and-response take on “Stewball”, an 1800s standard about a can’t-miss filly in a horse race; and “Shake ‘Em On Down”, a sparkplug Bukka White tune featuring Tarbox shining, shouting and singing at his finest.
And talk about chemistry: Seeing this band live, one gets a true sense that something special is going on. There’s little banter between band members during the set, save for a few happy whoops and hollers by upright bassist Johnny Sciascia. (Rounding out the cast is Jon Cohan on drums and Daniel Kellar on violin and backing vocals.) Nothing needs to be said; it’s all clearly represented by the way the crowd responds to this band. It’s almost inexplicable, especially since the clientele is so young.
It’s almost as if the Tarbox Ramblers are tricking everybody in the room into enjoying the blues, a genre that just doesn’t get the respect it deserves, especially in Boston. It’s a point Tarbox cautiously enjoys. “It’s very, very gratifying,” he says. Indeed it is. For everyone.