"Been So Long" and "Steal My Heart" by the Dirt Road Band

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"Been So Long" and "Steal My Heart" by the Dirt Road Band

Review

Is this now a thing? The other day, I was flexing myself to review "Data Machinery" by Duke Keats and then he dropped a guerilla release of "English Countryside"/"Loan Sharks" into the tiny gap before the promised single: now the Dirt Road Band have joined the game. I was all ready for their debut album ‘Righteous' (and sources within the band confirm that yes, it is imminent) when they shared another brace of tracks today: this time we have "Been So Long" and "Steal My Heart".

Just as the last pair "Cheap Talk & Whiskey" and "Don't Count for Nothing" seemed to have been selected with great care (in order to demonstrate their breadth of musical interests from Americana to British pub rock sweaty rhythm & booze, these ones share another strand of the DRB DNA: the great pleasure they get from occasionally adding keyboards to the mix and playing off these. All well and good: except that as the DRB love a good guest artist and so each track involves a different player. I've reported on Bob Jackson joining the band live & I'd heard that he'd been spotted in Woodbine Street Studios with them: so no surprises. Given that Bob has long played with DRB drummer Ted Duggan in Badfinger, the connection and chemistry is long established (though it's mildly disappointing that his initial fame in the shockingly short-lived Indian Summer seems to vanish into the haze of history). I hadn't heard though that latter-day Specials member Nikolaj Torp Larsen had also been recording with them (nice to have some surprises after all): obviously the link here is via bassist Horace Panter and if you look at the writing credits for his time in the band (chiefly the ‘Encore' album), you'll see how pivotal he was (mind you he also played on Grammy/Brit/Golden Globe/Oscar winning "Skyfall" too).

So Steve Walwyn wrote the songs & got to play with keyboard playing collaborators of his two bandmates while once again John Rivers wove the elements together in a way which accentuates all parts while blending them into a whole.

This is important because although huge numbers of songs feature keyboards, many use them for padding and provision of various effects such as not being able to afford a string session.

The DRB are a really organic band and deal in raw & authentic sounds, so if they want to work with a keyboard player, they want one who plays lead: which is what you get here. As I say, the others relish playing off each one rather than just having something mellifluous lurking behind them in the mix.

"Steal My Heart" (aka "the one with Bob on it") is another example too of the experimentation the band like to indulge in so as not to be simply revelling in a nostalgia-fest. Sonically it is vey distinct to the other tracks shared so far & plays interesting little games. For example the opening guitar sounds like John sent Steve to the far end of a long long cellar to record (yes there's a lot of echo), yet in complete contrast his vocal is not only the cleanest so far but it's way up in the mix: the most highlighted of his singing thus far on an album where instrumental playing otherwise takes central stage in the sound picture. "You steal my heart and tear it clean apart" is the refrain so the sound might be a bit of a reference there.

The piano solo appears out of nowhere and so has extra impact: it really is worth the price of the track by itself. They don't play ‘em like that anymore and it'll naturally evoke memories of Stevie Winwood, Georgie Fame etc. And in keeping with the tight taut philosophy, it comes in smartly, delights & departs just as quickly: enjoy it while it lasts.

"Been So Long" (i.e. "the Nikolaj one") is a different kettle of fish entirely. As previously revealed, the Dirt Road Band groove as well as swing. Not everyone can do these things: I wonder sometimes if it's innate? Bands can up the volume and notes per minute rate so as to hide any inability in this direction (it's not a crime after all) but the DRB can slow it right down like they do here (though being top musicians the variation in what they are up to is pretty near constant). They smoulder a lot. Things crackle and pop and Steve offers up a few harmonics among the succinct licks. Once again the Hammond is held back in the arrangement until its moment arrives and then takes centre stage: this time a la Booker T or Jimmy Smith, yet once again, you'd best savour it while you have it (or play the song again) as it flashes by.

A meditation on the passing of time, it is possibly the one track on ‘Righteous' which speaks autobiographically for the band (to some extent at least). In that context it contains an elevating emotional element. Normally, I'd probable waffle on at this point about potential single status but I think the DRB are wisely sharing most of the album tracks in pairs precisely so we get familiar with them and do not get overwhelmed by the full ten.

When you get to play the complete set, you'll be taken with the diversity. When I first saw this band (its first gig), it was the "Dirt Road Blues Band" and although they play a lot of high class blues still, I think they were wise to drop the word from the name: they have so much to offer but restricting themselves to one genre would be a needless self-limitation.

These are songs of experience both in terms of Steve's words and their accumulated playing skills. However I'm sure they'd be justifiably cheesed off with my suggesting anything which sounded like I thought that they were a bunch of old codgers revisiting past glories. The experience shapes the compositions: the zest for continuing to make new original music fires the performances & they always sound like they are having a whale of time doing this thing which they do.

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