OL’ SAVANNAH – UNDERNEATH THE OLD RED BARN
2012 – Self Released
Based in Montreal, Canada, this incredible ‘Hillbilly’ band are unlike anything else you are ever likely to hear, partly due to the blend of instruments on which the beautiful sound of an accordion has just as big a part to play as banjo and guitar, but also thanks to the vocals! Lead vocalist Speedy Johnson’s voice gives a whole new meaning to the word ‘gravelly,’ with ‘whiskey soaked,’ ‘Tom Waitsian,’ and any number of other descriptions being just as inadequate, although Waits is probably the nearest, but only if he was playing a strange eerie kind of hillbilly music!
The band consists of Speedy Johnson on vocals, guitar and harmonica, Bartleby J. Budde, guitar, lap steel, banjo and backing vocals, Kevin Labchuk, accordion, backing vocals, Chris Byrne, bass and backing vocals and Max Outerbridge on drums. Their instrumentation is sufficient
to ensure they don’t sound much like anyone else I can think of, but Johnsons vocals rubber stamp that uniqueness, although even he has a slightly softer side on a couple of near ballads! Having said that if you are a songwriter who wants to offer them any of your material, ‘crooning’is probably not his strong point! There is a huge amount of driving power from those battered vocal chords that
when combined with the bands instrumentation and all round abilities gives these already excellent songs a further lift.
This is their second recording and it is actually a better album than their nearly as good debut, giving the lie to‘that difficult second album’ syndrome. There are two traditional songs, with
the remainder of the songwriting being five songs by Johnson, three by Budde and two co-writes between the pair. Whiskey Stomp, penned by Johnson, gets the album underway with a lovely, mellow easy going banjo introduction, then in comes those vocals on a beautiful sparse song that has a feeling incredibly evocative of the mountains, but those vocals give it an atmosphere that few if
any can match. This is followed by the mid tempo In the Eye of the Moonshine, also written by Johnson, with a lovely accordion backing as a contrast to speedy’s vocals, on a song that says depite being the hurricane season we always have our ‘moonshine’ to ease the pain. It’s a really strong tale about losing a neighbor to the storm and evokes the heat, sentiments and unsettling air that must have been felt by those in the story. This is followed by Budde’s extraordinary American Civil War story and song from which the album takes it’s title, Underneath the Old Red Barn. It has a strange eerie sound with guitar, bass drum, accordion and those harshly atmospheric vocals on an incredibly sad haunting tale of a man forsaken by his lover for a soldier and their eventual return and burial! The traditional Coo Coo is a tremendous interpretation of this sinister old as the hills song that the originators would certainly have appreciated. The lovely haunting accordion is kept in the background throughout, adding to the edgy atmosphere. Won’t Get Drunk No More, is an excellent version of a song made famous by Uncle Dave Macon as ‘Way down the old plank road.’ It is fairly true to the original and just as entertaining, although actually containing more fire and aggression! Twisted Road starts with a nice easy going guitar, banjo and accordion which are then joined by Speedy’s vocals on a tale that is as close to a love song as those vocals will allow and tells a story on which the teller vows to give up on his self indulgent life style for the love of his woman! Every song repays a study of the lyrics with other excellent tales including She done gone to the Devil, on which the teller tries to reclaim his lover from the evil beast and album closer Big Fat mama is a really strong blues song with excellent driving guitar accompanied as usual by the accordion!
Whilst some may find Johnson’s incredible vocals a little 'difficult to take' the album should be given a chance for the atmosphere they create and for the excellent instrumentation and playing. There is also, of course, the tremendously well written songs that often tell darkly epic tales within a generic field that has enough scope for quite a few more raw and hugely entertaining albums of this quality.