I have no idea what to expect on the night I attend 7th Direction's album release gig. In many respects, this is how I like to experience all bands for the first time, a vague notion of what they sound like anchored only by my adventurous imagination. That way the notes can seep into my pores, permeating my being in a unique way. I do know this band has played a number of shows with the wonderful Grasshoppers and they have deep affection for the same rock that rules my world. A line from their website states, "Where old school tradition and storytelling take a new direction in our music.” As I strode up Geary Boulevard to the bar it occurs to me that the chaos sign is eight double-pointed arrows crossing one another and I wonder if the seventh direction is the one that pulls us out of the maelstrom.
As they lean into the first song I hear some of the big pink hum of The Band. I pick out the word “Dobro” from the chorus and have no problem imagining old Curtis Loew picking out melodies on this ramshackle instrument made of Acadian driftwood. Confirmation of these Canadian echoes follows with a punchy take on “Shape I’m In.” I first used the expression "ragged but right" about an album when I heard Stage Fright in college. Up on stage this band carries some of the same jubilant density, the sap of bards and softly badass pickers running in their veins. This ain’t no formal dinner, it’s good grub laid out in a way that makes you welcome. Stacking originals next to a tune of this caliber shows a kind of raucous fearlessness. Comparisons with their forefathers are thus unavoidable and to their credit they hold up in all kinds of ways.
Their multiplicity of voices has the harmonic jostle of Danko, Helm and Manuel though Cory Brown has a far sweeter songbird singing in his throat than any in The Band. I’m especially taken with Phil McGee, who besides being a varied and exciting lead guitarist, has a great deal of real living in his voice, a kind of hard road honesty that only actual experience can produce. His turn singing lead on "Outskirts of Paradise" gives me a happy happy shiver up the back of my neck. The entire piece conjures up the clear-eyed truth telling of Bob Dylan when he rode on a slow train coming up around the bend. They play with the hard edge of the Mark Knopfler led unit that backed up Zimmy, and Phil’s guitar has a liquidy flow that suggest paradise might lie on the banks of some great river.
Like a beautiful rainbow, you can see it but you just can’t touch.
Second set finds them evoking a little band Jerry Garcia used to play in, all sunshine daydreams and smiling at the miles gone and gone for good. When they tilt into "Brown Eyed Women" it makes all the sense in the world, as sharp and sweetly clean against the dusty back of the mind’s throat as that bottle of hootch must be. It’s all new to me except that it isn’t, strangers meeting and knowing each other’s tongue. They like their water deep and cool and man alive so do I.
Keep my eyes open and stay between the lines
As the highway leads me further still from home
Next morning I rise before the neighbors and put on their debut album release, 100 Miles Gone. It comes rushing from my speakers with a dawn light that goes well with the brightening sky. And it helps with the Kilimanjaro of dishes waiting to be scrubbed. It’s invigorating, inviting, intimate and probably a half dozen other good things that start with the letter "I." My lady wanders in sleepily and asks me what I’m listening to as she puts in her toast. Given the monstrous amount of tuneage played around this house it’s always a sign of quality when she’s motivated to ask for details.
For the next week I wake up every day with this album and each spin reveals new charms. One day it’s the mature hope in the face of adversity so prominent in their words. Another day it’s the rubbery bass of Assaf Jaffe and the direct and palpable joy of Cory’s voice. Yet another morning I’m taken with the spot-on touches from the guest players; Alisa Rose’s warm embrace of fiddle, Martin Fierro’s glowing sax accents or the great Will Scarlet blowing the beating heart out of his harp.
A month on it only gets better, a fuller finish develops like a wooden surface rubbed down with a firm hand, growing more lustrous and darkly deep with each coat applied. Besides being the best album by a Bay Area band I’ve heard in 2003 it’s also the best album period. It’s a new year and time will tell. What I can say is that their songs are already friends, bumping shoulders with staples from David Crosby and Joni Mitchell, those sounds I turn to when not much else feels right in my ear. Something in the production gives it the same comfortable aura as the artists that grew up in the early 70’s California cotton fields. Like the recently departed Mother Hips (who 7th Direction bear a striking similarity to both in performance and on wax) they possess a warmth that doesn’t disconnect your mind, a heart that beats despite being broken one too many times. This is their first waltz between the thin line of fire and ice and I’ll be listening all the way to their last hat dance.
100 Miles Gone is available by contacting the band directly through their website.
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