Thursday, July 5, 2012

Buffalo Killers - Dig. Sow. Love. Grow. A New American Guitar Hero's Arrival

First, let's talk about their rather ironic name. Buffalo Killers sounds a little rough, but you'd be hard pressed to meet a more polite, well behaved bunch, and in the words of singer/bassist Zach Gabbard. "We're pacifists....lovers, not killers!" However, there is the fact that this band does look like a bunch of buffalo killers - bearded, large in stature, and dressed to not impress, they could easily have just stepped off of a train sliding across the Midwest of America in 1869, after a month of tallying up bison. By the same token, this band would just as easily have fit in on that train crossing Canada in 1970, carrying Janis Joplin, The Band, The Grateful Dead on a trip known as the Festival Express, that saw the hippie elite drinking, smoking, and jamming their way into history. Maybe equally interesting is that sonically, they would have fit right in. Good music knows no age. 

Buffalo Killers are a true band - the Gabbard brothers, Andy and Zach, sound as if they've been singing together since the cradle. They were groomed for their jobs by their father's record collection, and his gift of early age guitar instruction. Zach recalls, "...listening to Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, CS&N, and The New riders of the Purple Sage as far back as I can remember." The apple did not fall far from the tree in the Gabbard household. Drummer Joe Sebaali has played with the brothers since he served as keyboardist in their early days of playing as Thee Shams, days in which the Cincinnati garage rockers released four albums on four labels, and toured extensively. Eventually it became obvious that Thee Shams had come to their logical conclusion, and were laid to rest. The brothers soon reconvened and it resulted in Buffalo Killers being formed in 2006.

Almost immediately they recorded a demo with producer John Curley (Afghan Whigs) that Zach sent out to some record labels, and they were instantly signed to Alive Records - the band quickly recorded five more tunes to round out their eponymous debut. The Black Crowes' Chris Robinson heard the record and invited the Killers out to open some shows on the band's Warpaint tour in 2007. Then their credibility increased even more when Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys signed on to produce their sophomore effort, Let It Ride. They also toured with the Akron band in 2008. In 2011 Buffalo Killers returned to the recording studio and pumped out the successful 3, an album that Vive Le Rock described as, "Twelve tracks of melancholic psych rock with twists of folk - 3 is perfect summer music."

Dig. So. Love. Grow. is the record that should catapult Buffalo Killers into a higher realm of rock - hopefully, a realm which will see them quitting day jobs, putting in much more time on the road, and focusing on their music as a full time proposition. The band has just signed with New Frontier Touring, the large agency out of Nashville that books road warriors like The Avett Brothers. Their timing is exquisite, as this record will certainly raise their visibility.

It's really tough to talk about Buffalo Killers and not compare and contrast them with many of the best bands of the 60s and 70s - while on one hand, the band bristles at the 'too easy' attempts to dismiss them as revivalists, or revisionists, they also take being mentioned in the same breath with their heroes as a compliment. The truth is that they should be congratulated on following their collective muse, and damned the torpedoes. This is a band that plays guitar based rock and roll with a heavy heap of vocal harmonies - with an emphasis on songwriting, and dynamic instrumental interplay. They play what they love in the fashion they are able, and what we are given is a soulful stew of excellent songcraft, and quality rock - whether it was recorded this year or in 1969 matters not a bit. The songs are melodic and memorable, the vocals a classic example of what happens when brothers sing together, and they have a drummer who often comes dangerously close to rolling off the rails with a strange, and unpredictable syncopation that makes me smile as I remember Levon Helm.

What I really like is the fact that we may be in the presence of a new and genuine American guitar hero. Andy Gabbard is an encyclopedia of cool guitar tones, chord changes, fills, and solos. He manages to use enough tone modifiers in the way of varied distortion tones, tremolo, and time based effects to keep things interesting, but it's his staunch rhythm chops and sinuous soloing that has me so giddy. At the risk of offending or oversimplifying, I hear the legacies of a lot of my favorite players and favorite tones in his playing. Occasionally I'll smile and think of Joe Walsh's wonderfully funkified staccato right hand picking style and his slightly behind the beat rhythm chops. The legend of Neil Young's fire breathing Tweed Fender Deluxe shines through, along with his pathos filled chord progressions. Then I hear the Mid-Eastern market open, and the slippery washes of sound that informed the best of Jimmy Page's Danelectro fueled orchestrations, as on the wonderful strut of Those Days.

The younger Gabbard brother isn't the flashiest soloist, and his chops aren't going to send anyone running for the woodshed, but that's never the point - guitar heroes are not always those with the flashiest fingers, but they are always the most musical, and Andy is one innately musical son of a gun. The hardest job in rock may be that of a guitarist in a three piece - the guys who have done it best were often the guys who could cover the most ground without becoming tiresome, or overly repetitious. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh, Billy Gibbons - these are the unarguable masters of the power trio, fellows who were able to carry bands just not through the night, but through a career without boring their listeners. While the times have changed, and there's little chance of Buffalo Killers selling tens of millions of records, there is every chance that Andy Gabbard could continue to up his game, and end up with his mug on magazine covers, and his name brandished a few signature models. If you learned every lick on every Buffalo Killers album up to this point, you'd have a hell of a rock and roll vocabulary, and a mess of musicality at your disposal.

The album's lead off track, Get It, is a battle cry for the disenfranchised - "You say your tired of being pushed around, and everybody's in your way, sometimes you got to push your weight around," and boy do they. This joyful freight train of fuzzed out bliss is catapulted by an insistent piano riff that cuts nicely through the muscular marriage of Andy's guitar and Zach's heavier than Hell bassline, and the boys drive their message of empowerment home, then Andy cuts loose with an audacious solo that is filled with propulsive pentatonic vitriol. Powerful stuff.

I looked all over the original Woodstock soundtrack, hell, I even looked over the complete setlist for the festival, and I could find neither heads, nor tails of a song titled Hey Girl - I'm joking, but damn, this tune is a fantastic slice of what made the combination of Neil Young and Stephen Stills so enticing. Fact is, the era it's from doesn't mean a thing - it is a convenient reference point, and an easy way for me to communicate to you what this thing sounds like. It's filled with melody, hopeful lyrics, great guitars, and some cool vocal interludes. While, of course, I'd love for CSN&Y to record another great record - this will do just fine. A summertime, top down, driving down the highway with the wind in your hair classic.

Rollin Wheel is a sophisticated slice of syncopation that grooves like mad, largely due to Andy Gabbard's choppy rhythms and drummer Joe Sebaali's death defying act of entertainingly waiting until it's almost too late to decide which fill he wants to play, but always making it work - the slight variance between the guitars insistence and the drums slight hesitance makes this a joy. Zach Gabbard keeps it all glued together with a rock solid bassline that bounces with an appropriate buoyancy as he bops between octaves.

As I mentioned earlier there is no escaping the fact that Those Days trespasses a bit on the houses of the holy, but it does so in a fashion that no one has captured for a very long time, and did you notice the groovy backwards tracked guitar solo? Good music is good music - it transcends era, it matters not when it came to pass, The Beatles would be The Beatles at any point in history. That's one of the beauties of guitar based rock. Unless you are going for a fashion sound (nu-metal anyone?), you may find yourself sounding as relevant 40 years from now as you do today. Buffalo Killers are a very musical, and unpretentious bunch - they write excellent songs and they play them. My litmus is to take Dig. Sow. Love. Grow. and listen to it next to a record recorded in the 60s - it sounds fine. Then I listen to it next to something recorded last month - it still sounds great. If you listen with the wrong ears, things can get screwy pretty quick. Take music at face value - remember how you approached it when you were fifteen.

I Am Always Here is a muscular mid-tempo rocker on which Andy Gabbard plays casually, but with great command. His rock riffery is in fine form as he punches a few power chords, then arpeggiates some chords in a rather nice, melodic fashion before he wraps up the riff with some world weary bends on the lower strings that convey the emotional content of the tune. Sebaali is again all over the map, and Zach Gabbard carries the day with a confident vocal and another solid bassline.

Buffalo Killers gear it down wonderfully. When they downshift it all becomes rather soporific, and spacey. They take you on a gentle journey, as on the tune Farewell - a loping bassline keeps things melodically interesting as Andy adds chord colors and textures. Sebaali sounds just drunk enough behind the kit to never really let you relax. Going slow isn't as easy as it sounds and these guys do it masterfully.

Psychedelia figures heavily on this record - there's a lot of atmospheric information that seems to hang in the clouds above the tunes, whether in the form of the band's exquisite backing vocals and harmonies, Andy Gabbard's effects laden forays, or Joseph Sebaali's occasional lurching as he goes from soft, sympathetic accompaniment to hammer heavy tom and cymbal work. It all stays on the tracks, but there's always the wondering of just how they are going to pull it off - these guys are the Flying Walendas of rock and roll. Graffiti Eggplant suggests that the band may even have some minor prog-rock leanings, as Andy Gabbard layers some sweet guitar harmonies (more Steve Howe/Yes than Thin Lizzy in terms of guitar harmony, by the way) amidst the power rock.

I've been raging about the brilliance of Andy Gabbard, but I still have to say that much of the spirit of it all resides in the heart of Zach Gabbard - his vocals and songwriting are truly unique, in spite of what one hears about all the Joe Walsh/James Gang comparisons. I think that the sound that comes out of this band is about exactly what you'd think. It's the sound of a group of fellows who have been playing together for quite some time, living out on a farm with lots of land, guitars, amps, drums, and beer, but little in the way of distractions. They couldn't change it if they tried - this record is a great slice of who and what they are at this moment. A very, very good rock and roll band that will most likely become a very great rock and roll band. Some serious roadwork, and another record like this, and  we'll see the band much higher up the bills at some big festivals and headlining tours of their own. They have a ways to go, but they will get there, you can bank on it.

Dig. Sow. Love. Grow. is an excellent album, and one that should bring Buffalo Killers great success, and position them for even greater things.

Thanks to Tony Bonyata at Pavement PR, Buffalo Killers, and Zach Gabbard!

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