By: Dennis Cook
Everything about Grace And Melody (released November 26 on Diamond Day) has the feel of natural born rockers doggedly focused on making a solid musical impact, the broad, hearty stride of men determined to get everyone's rocks off. It takes an album like this to make one appreciate where dedication to the basics, tweaked ever so nicely, can be just as satisfying, if not more so, than endless innovation. Oh, there's plenty of great touches – a Beatles-like chord knot here, a Doors-esque bridge there, ideally placed bursts of distortion – but mostly this hits your belly like a big steak after a three-day fast. Four albums in, Chicago's The Steepwater Band has settled into one of the toughest, most together trios around, armed with their leanest, sharpest tunes yet and a fat-free sound full of flexing muscle and artful swerve.
Grace has the crunching togetherness of Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy) and Steve Marriott (Small Faces, Humble Pie), where simple phrases or brutally primal licks are allowed to do their job in an uncluttered way. For as fully fleshed as each cut feels, there's plenty of space, allowing individual elements to shine – a groin throbbing bass run, the blue water purr of electric slide, the bright chatter of cymbals – followed by a coming together that's doggedly sensual. This is feel rock at its finest, very much the child of early Led Zeppelin, Edgar Winter Group and Cheap Trick – upfront greats that shake n' bake one to a golden glow. "One Way Ride" also suggests a familiarity with Ray & Dave Davies, and everywhere there's blues reverberations, back alley darkness, the 12-bar crawl of hard living folks. Sometimes it's inside the buzzsaw rush of "Healer" or waiting mid-song to unfold like a navy blue dream on "Waiting To Be Offended." Mostly, the blues are a specter lingering on the edges, taken from the band's spotlight but still given a place at the table.
Producer Marc Ford does clean, endlessly effective work here, bringing his years of experience with The Black Crowes, Burning Tree and others to bear. If anyone knows gut level, guitar-focused rock n' roll it's Ford, and Grace recalls Ford's own woefully under-recognized solo debut, It's About Time. Both share serious songcraft, a broad stylistic range and hardnosed playing that places their albums squarely in the proverbial "they-don't-make-em-like-that-anymore" category but without any recreationist reek. There's the denim and incense of the late '60s/early '70s, where exuberant exploration is anchored to a great beat and nostril flaring riffing. "Waiting To Be Offended" may clock in at almost 14 minutes but you never feel the time as their beatifically stoned, black snake moan curls around you. Steepwater excel at tight, pointed numbers, too, which is a mark of the band's growing range. By toning down their allegiances to any sort of blues or classic rock standards and listening to their instincts they've crafted a remarkably sturdy foundation for a very bright future. This is the abounding whomp of a band that's always been very good teetering on the edge of greatness. And by album's end I'd be surprised if you weren't rooting for them to topple all the way into full blown glory.
JamBase | Windy City
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