The Gourds – The buckle in the beeble belt
This one came along like any other: I was approached by a friend and given the usual pitch about the Gourds’ debut CD, having never heard a single note of this band — never even heard of them, for that matter. That was about three weeks ago. The CD is still in my stereo, and it ain’t coming out anytime soon.
I could go through the usual biographical material which accompanies every little story like this one, but I’ll make this one painless and quick, with just a few grammatically incomplete sentences. Here we go: Four guys from Austin. Kevin Russell plays acoustic guitar and mandolin and sings; Claude Bernard plays accordion and sings “a little”; Jimmy Smith plays bass and acoustic guitar; and Charlie Llewellin plays drums. Together since 1992. Munich Records debut CD titled Dem’s Good Beeble. Thank you. Now, onto the music.
When I heard this band, three thoughts came to mind. One, the remaining five members of The Band are calling themselves the Gourds. Two, these are Doug Sahm’s kids. Three, the remaining five members of The Band have formed a new band with Doug Sahm’s kids.
So it’s only natural that the first question I ask Llewellin is, “Are you guys fans of Doug Sahm?” No answer. I hear that sound like someone has their hand over the phone, then I hear Llewellin’s muffled voice ask, “Hey, do we like Doug Sahm?” There’s another pause, and someone back there says, “I like his early stuff, sure.” I have to admit I was expecting a resounding “Oh yeah!” or “He’s our inspiration!” — but instead it sounded like the tough guy in grade school admitting he liked Michael Jackson.
Regardless, the Gourds seem to have everything they need to be one of those great bands that might stand the test of time. They have the slight quirkiness of Sir Doug — that musical attitude that has their heads on the West Coast, but their heart’s smack dab in the middle of Texas or Louisiana. And the backwoods expertise of The Band? Yep, that’s very evident, too. They could very well be one of those bands that you could put on 20 or 30 years from now and it would still be fresh.
They would be all of the aforementioned, if they could just get used to the fact that this could be their full-time job soon. “We’re in this transition kind of state,” Smith explains. “None of us have ever really made a record. It definitely feels different.”
The Gourds’ first gigs in Austin were at various coffeehouses where crowds as small as three or four would show up, mostly to drink coffee. Their following has steadily grown over the past two years to near-capacity gigs on a regular basis at mainstays such as the Electric Lounge and Hole In The Wall. Now it’s time to take the show on the road.
“That’s the plan [to tour], for better or worse. Right now, it seems kind of worse because we have to quit our day jobs,” says Smith. “We don’t have much money and we won’t make much on the road. But the record sounds good and we’re looking forward to it.”
“The record sounds good” is an understatement. While this isn’t an album of technical studio wizardry — that’s not the “sounds good” we’re talking about here — it has the kind of songcraft craft that recalls The Band, or the swampland stomp reminiscent of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Not that their music is directly derivative of such acts — they just have this certain “comfortable” sound, like a beautifully broken in pair of moccasins.
Smith spells it out better. “It started from being minimalist in the approach to music — stripped down. Vic Chesnutt was getting a lot of attention when we did this, so he was really inspiring. Plus there’s been a recent trend of people going to different countries and recording from different cultures. And there’s always Tom Waits for inspiration.
“We recorded it at Kevin’s in-laws’ ranch, in their living room. We actually all kind of pass the guitar around. I mean, we all play our single thing, but we all play — what do you call it? — hybrids. It’s however we use our creativity, really. It’s good mike placement and little effects, then you’ll do good. And there was a lot of acreage at the house, too, so if Claude wouldn’t peel the potatoes we could all just go away, you know what I mean?”
Yes, we know. Sort of reminds you of those guys who used to play in the basement at Big Pink, doesn’t it?