For a music journalist, there’s no better feeling than finding out your initial instincts were correct. Meet one of Idaho’s best bands.
BY FRED MILLS
Musically speaking, Idaho tends to ping the national radar only occasionally; for the indie-rock milieu, Josh Ritter and Doug Martsch (Built to Spill) are probably the best-known Idaho native sons. Yet the state does in fact have a thriving music scene, with plenty of bars and breweries on hand to play host. You can count Boise’s Like A Rocket among the extant talent, championing regional breweries and arriving soon with their third full-length, High John The Conqueror.
The trio— guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Bobby “Speedy” Gray, bassist Andy Cenarrusa, drummer Max Klymenko—powers straight outta the gate with raucous, roots-rock raveup “Ain’t It All A Work Song” (it’s below, and also at their Bandcamp page for purchase as first single from the album), sending a sonic statement from the get-go they are here to kick up some dust and kick some ass. Sinewy yet deeply melodic Americana is the name of the game, from the twangy, Georgia Satellites-esque “Follow Me Down (to the party by the river)” and slide guit-powered stomper “The Devil of T.V. Paul’s” to the straight-up country rock of “Tuxedo and Anna Leigh” and lovely, Latin-infused cowboy ballad “Magdalena.”
There’s also the album’s psychological centerpiece, “Dark Blood.” Following the stage-setting, 30-second title track, a rippling acoustic guitar instrumental, this rumbling, brooding blues unfolds as a fatalistic tale of mortal sin and retribution: the former, at the hands of Gray’s haunted protagonist; the latter, courtesy album namesake High John, a living, breathing hellhound on the singer’s trail. Classic blues imagery abounds—roosters that are crowing, muddy waters that keep flowing, slaves on the block, “Tarrytown,” ropes dangling from trees—as Gray, voice framed amid a steadily rising chorus of snarling psychedelic guitars and tense martial percussion, realizes his time is near (“Brother, dear brother, take my fine young wife/ ‘cos I got a meeting comin’ with High John’s knife”). It’s a masterful performance, part Steve Earle, part “Sympathy”-era Stones, part Robert Johnson, all Like A Rocket.
As a band, this is a fluid, flexible beast, shifting easily between multiple styles while maintaining a taut, focused core. (A perfect example of this style-shifting is “Cry Baby Cry” which, with its low, echoey, shantylike vibe, initially suggests classic cosmic twang; but as the tune progresses, it ascends and turns anthemic, a marriage of gospel-inspired vocals and power pop guitars.) With songwriter Gray as their not-so-secret weapon—he seems to have absorbed a lifetime’s worth of influences yet instinctively knows when to put them on display and when to deploy them subtly, and nuanced—the three men also demonstrate a collective gift for arrangements that allows them to transcend the physical limits of a “mere” trio.
Ultimately, with High John The Conqueror, Like A Rocket is—pardon the painfully obvious cliché—clearly poised to take off.
Full disclosure: For yours truly, there’s a bit of a personal connection here. During the mid/late ‘80s, in my capacity as music editor for a Charlotte, NC, alt-weekly, I covered Gray’s early band, Helpless Dancer, on multiple occasions, and I instinctively gravitated to their glammy, hard-edged brand of power pop. (I still own a 45 they released during that time.) Their fan base was broad, and devoted. By that point Gray was already a scene veteran with serious chops he’d honed as a teenager touring as part of a gospel group, and after Helpless Dancer he wasted no time in forming a terrific post-punk group dubbed The Dollmakers. After I moved to the Southwest, however, I lost tabs on him, so to not only discover his current outfit now, many years later, but also learn that he made a similar move westward, also in need of a change of scenery, not long after I did makes for an oddly satisfying bit of synchronicity.
See, I’ve always felt that time and distance shouldn’t diminish memories or undermine old loyalties. Support the home team, so to speak. Here in 2017, I frequently encounter favorite musicians from back in the day who are still making stellar art, and in a weird way, having that type of insider knowledge about their backgrounds seems to subtly enhance my appreciation of their current efforts. It’s not necessarily a matter of comparing one incarnation to another one, but rather of having something relevant in common, and I’d reckon anyone can identify with that.
To all the rest of you, there’s plenty about Like A Rocket that, if you have an appreciation for honest, well-wrought, immensely tuneful American rock ‘n’ roll, you’ll be able to identify with. Crank up the stereo (you can get a quick taste at the aforementioned Bandcamp page, including a five-song EP, Raucous, comprising additional material cut during the album sessions) and make up for lost time—just like I’m doing now.
Fred Mills is the editor of BLURT magazine and Blurtonline.com