Review & Photos | Howlin Rain | Mill Valley

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Words by: Dennis Cook
Images by: Josh Miller

Howlin Rain, The Blank Tapes, The Shelters:: 03.14.15 :: Sweetwater Music Hall :: Mill Valley, CA

Read Dennis’s review after the gallery.

”Stoned with the animals at the 18th Street Park/ That ain’t the ringing of the golden bells of heaven/ It’s the stinging of your fool’s gold heart.”

Thus starts the latest offering from Oakland’s Howlin Rain, yet another top of the game slab titled Mansion Songs, strolling confidently through ghetto alleys and skid row bars with an eye toward the cosmos overhead. The undulating, classic rock savvy brainchild of Ethan Miller, the band is equal measures grimy and grand, forming a collective of streetwise scholars with the confident roll of heroes. One feels tapped into whatever well watered Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and the other 1970s giants, but like anything willfully organic, Howlin Rain is no mere aping of what’s been. They’re original with strong consonance with the best of the past but always tweaking and twisting sound in ways that marks the music as their own. Maybe it’s the lack of timidity, or their reliable leave-it-all-on-the-stage vibe, but Howlin Rain plays big in a small ball era, and like their forebears, they elevate those who listen to them testify.

This last part – a visceral rock-powered surge – was perhaps most evident about midway through their blazing, sweat-dripping, intimate performance at arguably the best small club in the Bay Area, Sweetwater Music Hall, when Miller roamed into the audience, his passion-drenched force of nature voice enveloping us as he brought the full brunt of his powers right into our faces. Climbing onto a ledge, Miller — decked out in his trademark vintage polyester shirts and slacks, his Rasputin’s cousin beard glistening with perspiration, mic clenched like a battle mace – showed himself an undaunted warrior for the sort of real-deal-ness one associates with Freddie Mercury, Rob Halford, and a young, shirtless, living phallic totem Robert Plant.

This is a new Howlin Rain lineup, only a short while into their evolution, but there’s already more popping off in this band than most of the competition. Freed from major label shenanigans after HR’s last album [contemporary classic The Russian Wilds], Miller recommitted himself to the fundamentals of delivering truth in a song, and he’s surrounded himself with guys interested in dancing out on that dangerous limb. Truth is a tricky business, especially with the unruly, pheromone oozing animal that is rock, but Miller lives and breathes the stuff, and that functions as a catalyst for his collaborators to do the same. This music has feeling and flow, with deep energies being tossed about and deep ideas being probed and turned over in the spotlight glare.

Standing among the largely beaming, blown away crowd, one could suddenly see the falseness and flatness of so much music in 2015. This was sustenance versus the steady diet of empty calories, and powered up by rib sticking nourishment we tossed our hair and threw our fists into the air, drinks spilling as we hugged each other and grinned as we mouthed “OMG!” to wide-eyed strangers. We sang out the lines we knew and roared our approval after each fresh wisdom-nugget or gloriously lacerating guitar solo, heartened that a band equal to the legends of old walks among us. Corny as that reads I assure you it’s the feeling and perception Howlin Rain engenders, both in their fiery live incarnation and in the more thoughtful, considered spaces of their studio work.

No discussion of this evening would be complete without a hearty nod to openers The Shelters, a new Los Angeles group that knocked early arrivals for a loop with a swiftly winning mix of power pop, sharp hard rock, and tapped-in stage moves well beyond their 20-something years. Reminiscent in spots of SoCal contemporaries Rival Sons and earlier touchstones like Social Distortion, The Replacements and Buzzcocks, The Shelters demanded one’s attention, urging us closer with invitations spoken and unspoken, each new tune adding to the hip shake and flexed fun of the previous number. These young cats are rock missionaries, testifying for the earthy pleasure and purpose of music delivered with full heart and zero subterfuge. Like the headliner, they made one feel something, dispersing the numbness of modern insularity through loud guitars and vibrating amplifiers, a propulsive beginning to a truly grand evening that testified to rock’s enduring power.

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