Hillbilly Blues – Billy Roberts and The Rough Riders (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

hillbilly_final.jpgThe title may suggest some sort of raggle-taggle, clattering country infused bluegrass, but Billy Roberts and his musical posse are in much slicker territory that it might first suggest. Well, I say slicker, all things are relative, and he has always come from a rough and tumble, bar band sort of place rather than the over-produced rhinestone Music City sound anyway. All I’m saying is The Grand Ole Opry this is not. Though there is a lot of the American South going on here, made all the more ironic considering the bands actual geographic base of operations, but anyone coming at this track, and indeed any of their music, without such prior knowledge would certainly place them south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Hillbilly Blues sounds like Tom Petty and Steve Earle driving along the I-40 singing Rainmakers’ songs, okay that is a bit simplistic but it has the same drive and accessibility, the same groove and grind, the same mix of utter commerciality and hidden gem status, and those horns just add something brilliantly quintessentially of that continent, something drawn from the blues-jazz hinterland of the American dream. But unlike the American dream, this is not a song of aspiration and hope, but a wonderfully self-deprecating take on the trials and tribulations of trying to pay the bills as a guitar-slinger. But then again country music has always been great at lamenting its own demise, but the charm here is that the song is never maudlin or melancholic, more about standing defiant in the face of the storm.

And the result is probably the most immediate and infectious song to come out of the man’s creative clutches so far and considering the standards he has already set, that is high praise indeed. As always stalwart Rough Riders Alex Quinn and Rory Racione do a sterling job, the former laying down some wailing guitar lines and slinky solos whilst the man at the back powers the song across the line with some tasteful and well tailored, driving beats. Maybe it takes an outsider to really cut through the musical complacency and well-guarded traditions of the country rock sound…listen to Hillbilly Blues and you realise that there is no maybe about it.

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Greenbah –  Billy Roberts and The Rough Riders (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

greenbahGenres are tricky things, full of implication and assumption. Pop music isn’t always popular, soul bands don’t always connect deep down and not all blues is melancholic. Similarly the term Americana might imply that it is a sound taken from the American music psyche or that references past glories from that country. But maybe some music is less about geography and more about the similarities between the people making it. If the modern urban sprawl has given us intense, minimal rapped deliveries put to a empty industrial-tribal beat and conversely slow-paced agrarian comments produce gentler, lilting folk, maybe all Billy Roberts is doing is channelling the natural pace and pulse of hard-working, regular communities, wherever they may be found.

And maybe the term Americana is a bit misleading, some of the hall marks are there for sure but Greenbah also wanders many other roads, it is rough around the edges rock, outlaw country, rhythm and booze; it grooves, it boogies, it motors. It is the sound of the perfect bar band, one that you could have stumbled across anywhere from 60’s San Francisco, 70’s New York, 80’s London and a hundred other scenes and cities across the decades. I guess it carries a torch that stems back to the early blues players and then has evolved, grown, got sonically tooled up but always been around in some form or another.

If album opener, Old Friend, ticks off more than a few of those American country references and has a certain Springsteen vibe about it,  Greenbah also has more than a few tricks up its sleeve. Blood and Bones is a raw, blues rock workout, Only One is a pacy ballad as blistering as it is beautiful and No One Knows Me is a west coast country punk anthem. There is even room for a moment of Cohen-esque bar-room introspection with Don’t Tell Mamma and Little Johnny is a song that Tom Waits would kill for, bent to his will and then probably re-written with a tuba in mind.

To say that it is a solid album is an understatement, The Rough Riders as a pack are a force to be reckoned with, they get the job done with the minimum of fuss, with an attitude of “I’ve had my union card a long time, I know what the job is, don’t mess with me when I’m working.” The charm comes from the fact that although it is the sound of a group of musicians playing at the top of the gruff, country-rock game, they rarely give away all the goods at once, preferring instead to serve the song and wait for their rare, individual moment in the spotlight, teasing and taunting the listener. Any showboating is reduced to intricate motifs and clever sonic designs which spice the music rather than lime-lit ego massaging that modern music is infamous for.

People are people, music is where you find it and the world is a small place. All cliches I’ll grant you but it does explain why Billy Roberts and The Rough Riders are difficult to place in every sense of the phrase. So why not raise a glass to the post-genre, post scene, post-everything world…then finish the bottle whilst listening to this intriguing Antipodean band.

No One Knows Me – Billy Roberts and The Rough Riders (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

GreenbahSitting here slightly fragile after a night watching a Dallas rocker with a country swagger tear a hole where the stage in an English venue used to be, the latest release from Billy and the boys feels like the perfect after party music. Not that I have the energy to party. But that same blend of southern groove, garage rock grunt and country licks seems very appropriate right now.

 
Know One Knows Me drives on a solid, relentless backbeat and bass pulse, time and tide may wait for no man and neither does this song. Alex Quinn’s spiralling guitars and Billy’s vocals, a combination of world wise and world weary, vie for the lead role and then settle for compromise and harmonise as the song builds.

 

If California has The Blasters, a band that captured the country vibe but then represented it to the world via a harder, punk edged rock and roll delivery, Billy Roberts and The Rough Riders are doing the same job on the other side of the world. Okay, it isn’t going to please the purists but I’m sure it will turn a lot of people on to the idea of what country music can be, whilst delivering some consistently solid tunes along the way. If there is such a thing as alt-country…then this is definitely it.

 

 

Only One – Billy Roberts and The Rough Riders (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

GreenbahBlurring lines and subverting expectation is the job of every musician worth his salt and the fact that Billy Roberts both obscures the distinction between alt-country and garage rock and does so from a whole different cultural heartland, shows that he is all too aware of that.

By rights this should be an East Nashville bar band raising disapproving eyebrows of Music City purists and the pulses of outlaw country devotees in equal measure for their scuzzy and raw approach to America’s musical lore. The fact that they do so with both feet firmly planted on the soil of another country proves what a small and wonderfully connected place the world is these days. But we covered all of that last time around when discussing the, then current release, Blood and Bones.

There is a wonderfully underground delivery to Billy’s vocals, the same world-weariness that haunted Johnny Thunders sound, and whilst sonically he might not seem like the best reference to aim for as a vocalist, you can hear a life lived to the full, the struggling underdog and the warrior poet in both their voices.

But this isn’t a solo effort and as the song moves towards it’s logical conclusion, neatly tied together by Rory Facione’s subtle and sparing beats, it builds through melodic momentum, tempered piano breaks and finally reaches fruition via Alex Quinn’s masterful guitar work.

If I said my latest favourite alt-country rock band came from a one time cotton town in the south of the country, no one would think anything of it, tell them that the country in question is Australia and it will have them spluttering into their Mint Julep!

Blood and Bones – Billy Roberts and The Rough Riders (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

bloodandbones_coverWith the popular resurgence of alternative takes on the classic American country rock sound, I find myself dealing with terms such as Anglicana or British-Americana, which seek to describe that odd hybrid of the formers take on the latters traditional sound. If Billy Roberts and the Rough Riders are the Antipodean equivalent of such a meeting of musical minds then it would seem that their cultural clash is fairing much better. Whereas on British shores the result tends to be a pale pastiche of what is going on across the water, on the other side of the world that melting pot is creating something much more sturdy. Whereas the trans-Atlantic product is one that has been weakened by British reserve, the trans-Pacific result is one that has been strengthened by Australian grit.

Blood and Bones, is taken from the upcoming album Greenbah and is a showcase for raw, bluesy rock and country twangs but its defining details lie at the top and bottom of the song. Up front and centre is Billy Roberts’ vocal, with the sound of an over indulgence in cigarettes and alcohol providing exactly the right lived in textures. Hiding at the back of the mix is some lovely swirling Hammond, which just raises its head occasionally, adding some emotive musical layers and contrasting background delicacy.

But as I said, this isn’t a by the book take on the genre, this is outback blues and part of the originality of the sound seems also to be a large swath of indie vibes running through its core. This is all the proof that you need that as much as music is universal it also constantly evolves and adapts to new environments. They say that travel broadens the mind; it broadens the musical possibilities too.

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