(ROUNDER RECORDS/CONCORD RECORDS; 2014)
So, what’s a fella to do when his band is prone to rather lengthy bouts of inactivity based on the whims and hubris of the brothers that front the band? Well, if you’re the Black Crowe’s drummer, Steve Gorman, you form a band of your own, enlisting the group of musicians with which you would most want to collaborate. That’s exactly what Steve did in 2009, when he founded Trigger Hippy with fellow Crowe member, guitarist Audley Freed, Widespread Panic guitarist Jimmy Herring and Nashville session bassist Nick Govrik. Herring and Freed eventually departed (as did Freed’s replacement, Will Kimbrough), due to outside commitments, and the group solidified around Gorman, Grovnik, ace session guitarist Tom Bukovac and the duel lead vocal powers of Jackie Greene (who also provides guitar and keyboards) and Joan Osborne… a veritable super group of seasoned, in-demand players. The sound on their debut record is solid Southern Rock ‘n’ Soul (think Lynyrd Skynyrd – or the post-crash offshoot, Rossington Collins Band – spiced with a touch of Wet Willie and Little Feat and a whole lot of Stax Records funky rhythm and blues), a true band effort, as Gorman relates: “Sure, you can see this as a ‘player’s band,’ but it really is a BAND, in the true sense of that word.”
The album kicks off with the celebratory, anthemic “Rise Up Singing,” a gospel-tinged song driven by a vibrant organ and hand claps. Aside from the previously mentioned influences, you can also hear touches of Delaney and Bonnie and even – believe it or not – a little Three Dog Night and latter day Fleetwood Mac. “Turpentine” is a Black Crowes type rocker with a deep, pumping bass, powerful drumming, smooth harmony vocals and Skynyrd-esque double lead guitars, with an unforgettably cool harmonic riff. The slow, plaintive “Heartache On the Line” marks the end of a deep love and a long relationship, with Jackie’s organ infusing just the right touch of melancholy to the song. That melancholy is matched by the vocal performances by Greene and Joan Osborne; especially effective are the lyrics in the chorus: “You and me, babe/We got history/It ain’t everything we asked for/But it’s everything we need/You and me, babe/We got nothin’ but time/Well, the kids are grown/And the money’s all gone/It’s heartache on the line.” Steve’s drumming, as usual, is spot on and Bukovac’s solo perfectly relates the feeling of dissolution. “Cave Hill Cemetary” features a solo Joan’s rather ragged sounding vocal over a funky guitar/organ groove. The pumping rhythm, supplied by Gorman, Nick Govric and Greene, and the blistering leads and solo from Tom catapults this one into the rarified air occupied by Al Jackson Junior, Lewie Steinberg (and, later, Donald Dunn), Booker T Jones and Steve Cropper (uh… Booker T and the MGs, if you didn’t know). “Tennessee Mud” is a swampy, muscular number that sonically evokes such acts as Mountain, Mother’s Finest and a bit of Ram Jam’s version of Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter’s Blues stomp, “Black Betty.” The second, primarily instrumental, half of the track absolutely screams “jam band” but, in a totally cool, acceptable way. There’s a great give-and-take from Joan and Jackie on the ballad “Pretty Mess,” that pays off beautifully with the harmony vocals on the chorus. Bukovac’s semi-acoustic guitar adds to the depth of the number with its ringing tone.
“Pocahontas” is one of the funkier tunes here, with a slithering, snaky guitar coda, kinda like Gary Rossington and Stevie Ray Vaughan fronting Sly’s Family Stone. Greene’s clavinet brings a Stevie Wonder-esque funk to the proceedings, while another solo vocal performance from Osborne proves why she is one of the preeminent ladies of this type of soulful rock ‘n’ roll. While I was rather expecting a cover of the Blackfoot tune, “Dry County” has the quintet firing on all cylinders as they build off of the David Bowie/John Lennon groove of “Fame.” As the song progresses, the guitars toughen up as the deep bottom end from Steve and Nick seems to gain new momentum into the instrumental section; with guest Ian Fitchuk providing keyboard support, we are treated to a harmonica solo from Jackie Greene, while his and Joan’s singing are lifted to new heights, teasing each other with lines like: “I know you got it/But you can’t spare it/What I gotta do to get you to share it/It’s like living in a dry county/Trying to get a little bit of your love.” The spry playing and almost joyful singing on “Nothing New” belies the hurt in the lyrics. There’s a lot happening here that could easily go unnoticed if left in the hands of another producer (Bukovac co-produced with input from the rest of Trigger Hippy): The track starts with a guitar signature that’s right out of the Derek Saint Holmes playbook as a prudent use of the cowbell marks time before the vocals come in; a great boogie woogie piano cuts through at times, augmenting the continually stellar guitar work. Another slinky groove propels “Ain’t Persuaded Yet,” as Osborne’s character pleads her case to a jealous lover: “’Oh, I never would step out on you/Now what you heard, it just ain’t true/Baby, don’t something you’ll regret.’/He said, ‘Your words are sweet/But I ain’t persuaded yet.’” As wicked sounding guitars and organ weave in and out of the mix, a buoyant, rock steady bass holds the groove, allowing Gorman to get a little adventurous with the percussion. Sounding like the flip side to the last cut, “Adelaide” is a sad, rootsy lament, with Greene’s high lonesome voice; the emotions seem genuine and are definitely effective. The almost dirge-like music comes together with a rolling drum beat, steady, solid bass, and grief-stricken harmonica, organ and banjo (though not credited, I would imagine that the banjo is courtesy of Tom Bukovac).
I’ve always been a fan of the Black Crowes but, honestly, if Trigger Hippy can continue producing the type of music presented on their debut, I won’t be too sad if the Robinson brothers permanently retire the group. The vocal interplay between Joan Osborne and Jackie Greene is exceptional, the rhythm section is tight and I can certainly see why Bukovac won the MUSIC ROW Session Guitarist of the Year award for five consecutive years; the man is absolutely brilliant… a true player’s player. The songwriting by the band, collectively and singularly (and, occasionally augmented by former guitarist Audley Freed), is superb. If I were to do a Top 10 of 2014, TRIGGER HIPPY would undoubtedly be near the top of the list.