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Unkempt, ill-tempered blues rock
Interstate Buffalo’s One Step Away erupts with a nasty slide guitar intro on “Down in a Bad Way.” And the full-length debut album from the Little Rock quartet stays rather nasty for its 11-track, roughly 55-minute run time. But nasty, when discussing One Step Away, is a compliment of the highest order. We’re not talking about tunes that are highly unpleasant or physically harming. No, the nasty of “Down in a Bad Way” and other tunes on One Step Away is the good kind of nasty. As in “that’s one nasty guitar riff.” And One Step Away is an album packed with those riffs. “Old Friend” moves like an armored column charging over the horizon, and that “Running After Shadows” rhythm sounds like a hunter on the prowl in the darkness.
Blues rock and nastiness often work together. The music genre isn’t always marked by the melancholy holler of its forefather — the Delta blues. Blues rock is unkempt. A little ill-tempered. Blues rock generally sounds like music stuck in the second stage of grief, the anger stage. It hasn’t advanced. No bargaining. No depression — yet. And certainly no acceptance. Especially when it’s amplified blues rock of the sort Interstate Buffalo creates.
The band — Jack Poff on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Stephen Compton on lead guitar, Chris “Scooter” Chandler on bass and Nick Reeves on drums — recorded the 11-track album with Jason Tedford at Wolfman Studios earlier this year. But One Step Away is not all nasty riffs. The band soars on the beautiful country-infused “Down to the River,” which channels Widespread Panic’s more refined jams, and the laid-back blues of “St. Peter,” a tune that showcases the band’s appreciation of funk. So there’s a little country, a little folk and even a little funk in this blues outfit.
It’s also the blues of the 21st century. Poff on “Down in a Bad Way” cries out “Little Rock to Memphis/Be a long stretch of road.” And anyone who has driven Interstate 40 between the two Mid-South cities knows the blues the drive produces. But elsewhere Poff sings about the tenets of the blues: love, loss and frustration. “Harp On” even recalls the Southern literary classic To Kill a Mockingbird and throws in a nasty harmonica solo.
Interstate Buffalo started as an acoustic blues cover band in 2006. It formed under the name South 61, but in 2009 adopted Interstate Buffalo as its moniker and also embraced a harder, blues rock sound. The new, scorching sound shows how the nature of the Southern blues rock genre has changed. There’s still a lot of The Allman Brothers Band and Grateful Dead in Interstate Buffalo’s sound, but the quartet also welcomes Widespread Panic, Drive-By Truckers and Warren Haynes as influences.
The band’s sound is evidence of each band member’s path to Interstate Buffalo. Poff grew up listening to B.B. King, Van Morrison and Bobby “Blue” Bland, and lived in New Orleans during elementary school, experiencing the street performers of the French Quarter, but also sang in the church choir as a child. He’s the band member who writes most of the lyrics, too.
Compton, a guitar instructor at Little Rock Jams, is an Abilene, Texas, native who first caught the blues in 1998, and has since immersed himself in the sounds of masters from Albert King and Muddy Waters to Haynes and Jimi Hendrix. He’s the man responsible for the band’s blistering riffs and funky grooves. Chandler’s aunt gave him the Dead’s American Beauty as a Christmas present when he was a seventh-grader, and the bassist counts Panic and bass players such as North Mississippi Allstars’ Chris Chew as influences. Reeves, a Vilonia native, played low brass for the Arkansas Ambassadors of Music during high school, but is a self-taught drummer who first started playing for real at the age of 12. It’s not really the blues Reeves points at when describing influences though. He grew up on late ’80s and early ’90s rock, including Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana, and says his drumming sound is closest to Morgan Rose of Sevendust.
What it all means is the band is not simply locked into this nasty blues rock sound. Interstate Buffalo gets stormy on tunes such as the instrumental “Cousin,” with Reeves’ drum rolls propelling Compton’s overdriven guitar outro, or funky with “Camera,” a tune where Chandler’s bass locks into a stone-cold groove and never surrenders. And “#57” swings with this gorgeous country rock rhythm.
So sure, Interstate Buffalo is nasty — when they need it — but there’s a depth to the band and its sound. And it’s a depth that is explored remarkably on the great One Step Away.
SEE INTERSTATE BUFFALO
Interstate Buffalo will celebrate the release of its One Step Away on June 19 with a CD release party at The Afterthought on June 23. The music will begin at 9 p.m. with a $7 cover.