Ghost Town Blues Band – Hard Road to Hoe |Album Review
12 tracks / 39:12
Many blues bands choose a genre and sound and do not stray very far from what they have found success with in the past. But a few are willing to go outside their comfort zone and experiment with mixing genres and coming up with a new sound of their own. This is exactly what you will find with the Ghost Town Blues Band’s latest release, Hard Road to Hoe.
If you pay attention to blues news, chances are good that you have heard of this group. This Memphis-based band has been to the International Blues Challenge the past two years, making it to the finals in 2013 and earning second place in 2014. The seven-piece group has been working since 2009 and this is their third album. The songwriter/frontman is Matt Isbell, who takes care of the vocals and guitars (including cigar box guitars he makes at his company). He is joined by Preston McEwen on drums, Jeremy Powell on keys, Alex Piazza on bass, Suavo Jones on trombone, Richie Hale on sax, and Vicki Loveland with the background vocals.
Hard Road to Hoe is the correct title, and I know you are saying to yourself “Wait, that should be hard row to hoe!” But their reasoning is that they are not farmers, they are musicians who work the highways as they travel to gigs around the United States and Canada – it totally makes sense in this context. The album has a dozen tracks, and they are all originals that are straight out of Memphis with a sound that spans from raw roots to slick blues-rock, and everything in between.
They kick off this set with the title track which starts with hand percussion and an electric push broom (Isbell makes more than cigar box guitars), then morphs into a hill country rock tune with slide guitar and well-arranged horns. It is well written, and the lyrics are heavy and evoke feelings of loss. But this record is not a stone-cold bummer, from there they slide into “Big Shirley,” a boogie about a saucy lady that kicks off with Jeremy Powell doing his best imitation of The Killer on the piano. Both the piano and horns are signs of evolution for the band, as the roster has grown a bit since their last album, Darkhorse.
Guest artist Brandon Santini brings his harp to two tracks, “Tip of My Hat” with naughty double entendres and a zydeco beat, and “My Doggy.” The latter actually includes a few vocal lines from Matt’s pup, Marry, which are used to good effect, and the tight horns of Jones and Hales bring it all together in a tight package.
After a cool intro piece,“Mr. Handy Man,” the album moves along through another six songs, and there are no clunkers in the mix. After only 40 minutes (much too soon), Hard Road to Hoe draws to a close with “Road Still Drives the Same.” This song is somber with a beautiful accompaniment of slide guitar with just a touch of drums and organ. This was a clever way to bring things to an end as its theme of sad memories makes it a perfect bookend for the opener.
Even with its wide range of genres and tempos, this disc holds together well as a single piece of performance art and does not sound like a jumble of songs that were randomly stuck together. This is because the tracks are sequenced well, and the backline of McEwen and Piazza hold down the bottom end so consistently throughout. Also, the recording itself is top notch. The band went with Ken Houston (6 Grammy nominations) to record and mix the project, and his work on the 2-inch tape is nothing short of amazing.