Back when I used to eek out a few bucks writing about music, one particularly hard ass editor accused me of being “not a real Rock Critic.” This was likely due to my unwillingness to indulge in the widespread practice of pondering the sociopolitical leanings of a band in the context of a record review rather than just basing my critique on how the music sounded to me. I never really got that approach. I’m not interested in reading paragraphs of turgid, impenetrable prose and rock-crit wankery. Just tell me how the music sounds so I know if I want to buy the record.
Along those lines, The Sheepdogs are a band that’s easy for me to write about, because their music sounds amazing. This Canadian Classic Rock quartet (who in 2011 won a contest making them the first unsigned act ever to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine) have three independent albums under their belts and an EP released on Atlantic last year, but this record is their major label debut (produced by Patrick Carney of The Black Keys), and it’s beyond impressive.
“Laid Back” and “Feeling Good,” the first two tracks on the disc set the tone for the entire album: This is an exceptionally great feeling album of groove heavy tunes performed by a band that embraces an extremely lyrical approach to their playing. Lead singer Ewan Currie (whose voice has been compared to The Guess Who’s Burton Cummings) delivers the kind of quietly confident, effortlessly powerful vocal performance that is the mark of true natural talent. Guitarist Leot Hansen is doing wildly innovative stuff on the guitar while paying homage to tone masters such as George Harrison (“Never Gonna Get My Love”), Duane Allman (“Javelina!”) and of course Jimmy Page (“Sharp Sounds”). He’s amazing. Drummer Sam Corbett varies his drum feels to serve the song and his rhythm section partner, bassist Ryan Gullen holds down the bottom end while layering in adhesive hooks. This means that The Sheepdogs are just as vibrant and tight live as they are on disc, and you can’t say that about many acts these days.
What’s most impressive about The Sheepdogs is the band’s ability to integrate their influences so seamlessly that the songs are instantly familiar without sounding derivative. “Is Your Dream Worth Dying For?” feels pleasantly infused with tiny reminiscences of Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw The Light”, “While We’re Young” comes off like a revamped version of “Shapes of Things” and “In My Mind” captures the same kind of transcendent, euphoric quality as a song like Cream’s “Badge” without sounding anything like that song. As an aside, at least half these tracks indicate that The Sheepdogs should have a ready-made fan base in anyone who ever cited The Grateful Dead as a favorite band.
In their review of The Sheepdogs, Rolling Stone wrote, “Listening to the Sheepdogs is like having good luck finding classic rock stations on a long road trip.” I agree with that sentiment, but to me it feels fresher than that: as if it were possible travel back in time and actually hear new songs from a ‘70s band. It’s a refreshing reminder that the most vital benchmark of what constitutes good music is (or should be) that the music just sounds good.
More than a few times in my life, I have found myself in relationships with really great guys who are also hardcore Deadheads. Hard to believe, yes, but it can happen to the best of us. Over the course of these otherwise happy relationships, I was often subjected to the unimaginable multi-sensory torture that is a live Grateful Dead concert. I was never able to really grok the attraction to this band of profoundly unattractive men that played meandering, soporific and somewhat dissonant music. Then one night at Madison Square Garden, a certain vital ingredient that had been missing from all previous Dead concert experiences was thrown into the mix. Finally, at long last, I “got” The Dead. Since that time, I have been much more tolerant of The Grateful Dead and its vast legion of unwashed fans, because “China Cat-Rider” is awesome.
Love them or hate them, there is no denying that The Grateful Dead is a legendary band that made an indelible impact on rock music; not just aurally but visually and socially as well. Through July 4, 2010, The New York Historical Society (located at Central Park West and 77th Street), presents a very fun exhibit, Grateful Dead: Now Playing at the New York Historical Society, which I strongly recommend not just to Deadheads but any fan of rock culture. While the exhibit is smaller than I was lead to believe, Geoffrey and I really enjoyed looking through the displayed archives of vintage concert posters, tickets, backstage passes and assorted memorabilia as well as a fascinating collection of psychedelic, hand-drawn fan art collected by members of The Dead over their lengthy career. It was also surprising to learn about how The Dead revolutionized live concert sound with the invention of their “Wall of Sound” monitor system. Grateful Dead tunes are piped into the room as you browse the exhibits and I actually found myself digging the music in a nostalgic, comforting way. Oldness!
Geoffrey never had the chance to see The Dead, as Jerry Garcia passed away on the very day he purchased a ticket for one of their upcoming concerts. Crazy. While I thought that the $12 admission price was a little steep for this exhibit alone, we did venture up to one of the higher floors, where a mind-blowing collection of antique Tiffany glass lamps made the trip uptown more that worth it. Afterward, we walked a couple of blocks over to the American Museum of Natural History (free admission provided courtesy of my day gig), where we spent the remainder of a very rainy afternoon gleefully enjoying the Dinosaur bones and my personal favorite, the Hall of Ocean Life. Have a great weekend, everybody!
Jerry Garcia, guitarist and songwriter for the Grateful Dead and undeniably one of contemporary rock music’s most enduring pop culture icons, was born on this day, August 1st, in 1942.
Today is also a day to remember the late Tommy Bolin, guitarist for the James Gang and Deep Purple, who died of a heroin overdose at the very young age of just 25, and who was born on this day in 1951.
Last but not least, Happy Birthday to Joe Elliot of Def Leppard who was born in 1959. Def Leppard can still kick any band’s ass live.