HowellDevine – Strange Time Blues
DynaPhonic Records 101
10 songs – 43 minutes
Based out of San Francisco but delivering their own blend of traditional Piedmont, Hill Country and Chicago blues, HowellDevine are an acoustic trio with plenty of contemporary appeal, and they serve up a treat with their fifth CD, which intersperses four originals with six covers, all of which deal with the problems all of us are facing while living in a disease-wracked, troubled world.
Formed in 2011, the band is led by vocalist Josh Howell, a double threat on harmonica and guitar. A fixture in the Bay Area blues scene since age 14, he held down the harp chair in the house band at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland when still too young to drink. Influenced by six-string masters Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bukka White, Robert Johnson and R.L. Burnside, he enjoyed success as a luthier but has been devoting himself to the stage full-time since relocating to Thailand for a couple of years, where he played 15 solo gigs a week.
He’s backed by Pete Devine, a Maine native who’s been performing in blues, jazz and jug band setting on the West Coast since the ‘80s, on drums and Joe Kyle Jr., who’s being playing upright bass with roots and swing bands in the Bay Area since the early ‘90s. They combine to deliver hypnotic, deep-in-the-pocket grooves throughout.
After four successful albums on the Arhoolie/Smithsonian Records imprint, this is HowellDevine’s maiden effort on their own label. It was recorded at Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco, the renamed landmark where Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills Nash & Young and The Grateful Dead all laid down tracks for legendary engineer Wally Heider in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
An interesting reworking of McDowell’s “East St. Louis” sets the tone to open with Howell laying down unhurried bottleneck slide runs on his 1931 National Steel Duolean resonator, Devine on brushes and Kyle delivering a haunting bottom. It describes dark clouds forming overhead as the singer wonders what troubles lay ahead.
The sound sweetens for the original, “Smoke,” but runs counterpoint to cautionary lyrics imbued with fiery images that speak out against the effects of human ignorance about pollution and global warming that might push all of us into extinction. Howell drives home his message with a powerful harp solo. The mood brightens quickly, however, with the instrumental “Hey! Oh Really?” with Devine simultaneously doubling on the skins and porcelain whiskey jug as Josh rips and runs on the reeds.
A sweet cover of Blind Boy Fuller’s “Untrue Blues” has new, hidden meaning in a world inundated with fake news before unique takes on R.L. Burnside’s “Long Haired Doney,” Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks” and Muddy Waters’ “Long Distance Call” before Howell recounts the true story of “Nila,” an elderly, cancer-stricken woman who struck and killed by a neighbor who was speeding in his truck down the lane. Another haunting instrumental, “Strange Time Meltdown,” deals with the solitude of living in the midst of a pandemic before Rev. Robert Wilkins’ classic “That’s No Way to Get Along” brings the action to a close.
Sure, the themes are dark on this one. But if you have an appreciation of great picking and playing, there’s a lot to like with this one.