The Upshot: North Carolina trio fully justifies its album title with a freewheeling set of blues, rock, and boogie.
BY FRED MILLS
There’s some history here. Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a small but potent psychedelic scene popped up in, of all places, Charlotte, North Carolina, foreshadowing the rise of the jambands that, nowadays, we take for granted as part of pretty much every local scene. This is a point that cannot be overstated: Groups such as The Inn, the Trees, the Ravelers, The Other People, and the delightfully-named Sloppy Joe & the Random Rhythm Section (not to mention The Inn’s in-house record label, Third Lock) were way ahead of the artistic curve – remember, this was the same period during which Sub Pop was ascendant, the post-Nirvana era would soon find the planet awash in grunge, and soon enough you could get your ass kicked just for turning up at a show sporting a tie-dye or sandals. And while the proto-jammers weren’t really able to capitalize, financially, on their musical prescience, they could at least sleep easy at night knowing that a lot of folks in the Queen City were digging ‘em. As I was living there at the time, I count myself among those fans.
So: Bert Wray Blues. The good Mr. Wray, on guitar and vox, got his start in the aforementioned Sloppy Joe gang, and drummer Mitch Cooper headed up the also-aforementioned Inn, and as accompanied by ace bassist Dave Ball, they cook up a good ol’ greasy cauldron of slide-guit boogie and down ‘n’ dirty blooze. Gut Bucket Radio, as a title, is instructive. Right from the get-go, with the slinky harmonica-and-slide-powered “Midwood Blues,” that band serves notice it’s willing and able to slot into classic electric 12-bar mode while still bringing a contemporary twist to the music—in this instance, instead of heading down to the crossroads, Wray’s celebrating driving down Central (with his rider by his side, natch) to the Charlotte neighborhood known as Midwood via Central Avenue. (To those of you reading this who are not familiar with Charlotte: you’re welcome for the translation.) “Like Johnny Winter Did” is up next, building on a tried-and-true John Lee Hooker motif (as filtered through the late Winter, with a touch of ZZ Top) to great effect. And both “Got the Tennessee Blues” (a kind of modified boogie, with a distinctive Southern-rock twist) and “On A Misty Morning” (haunting and eerie, with overtones of the way Led Zeppelin was refining its approach to blues tropes around the time of III) demonstrate how agile Wray, Cooper, and Ball are at working multiple influences into individual songs. (The sound of a turntable stylus crackling against vinyl at the beginning of “Whisky In My Coffee Cup” is a nice touch, too.)
There’s some additional history here. Charlotte, and the surrounding North Carolina Piedmont area, has a strong blues tradition going back decades; in fact, until just recently one of the most respected blues venues on the East Coast, if not the entire nation, was Charlotte’s Double Door Inn. It closed, sadly, this spring, but there are still plenty of midnight howlers and backwoods growlers in and around the city ready to blow a mean harp lick, lay into a Chicago shuffle, and unleash a vintage Elmore James lick at the drop of a plectrum. Count the guys in Bert Wray Blues among the players who tap into the tradition while bringing their own early musical roots — let’s not forget that the Dead, which loomed large among the psych bands mentioned in the first paragraph above, was steeped into the blues — to the table, and with powerful results.
Ultimately, that album title is more than just instructive—it’s a friggin’ imprimatur. Get down.