11 songs – 42 minutes
Hen House is the first release from the Seattle-based John Stephan Band since 2010’s Know Your Driver, although Stephan’s own discography dates back to 1982. With eight tracks written by Stephan himself, together with two updated reinterpretations of Charlie Patton classics and one off-the-wall pop cover, Hen House is an impressive and enjoyable modern guitar-led blues/roots/rock release.
The John Stephan Band comprises Stephan himself on vocals and guitars, Marty Lockwood on drums, Tom Roesch on bass and Steve Flynn on keyboards. Their collective years of experience are apparent from the upbeat opening shuffle of “Who Made That Rule?” with Lockwood and Roesch’s solidly swinging rhythm section underpinning Flynn’s rolling piano lines and Stephan’s edgy, overdriven Telecaster.
Interestingly, for a bunch of NW-based musicians playing American music, at times the band actually sounds British (or Irish). Partly this is due to Stephan’s half-sung/half-spoken vocal style, which recalls the likes of Mark Knopfler, Richard Thompson and other Brits (who were of course trying to emulate their trans-Atlantic cousins). Partly it is due to Stephan’s song-writing and guitar-playing styles. The chorus of the rolling rock of “Fast Track”, for example, has echoes of Dire Straits’ “Water Of Love”, while the choppy rhythm guitar parts and vocal melody of “The Fox” are reminiscent of Wilko Johnson and early Dr Feelgood. Stephan’s slide playing also recalls Rory Gallagher at times. None of which is meant as a criticism – more a reflection of the edge that inhabits the music.
Stephan is a whip-smart guitar player, laying down a variety of different tones and textures throughout Hen House, particularly on slide guitar (check out his gorgeous vibrato on “Holed Up”), ably aided and abetted by Flynn’s keyboards, from the floating organ of “The Fox” to the frolicking piano of Charlie Patton’s “Banty Rooster Blues” – the piano’s absence from the first verse makes its later appearance all the more effective, lifting the song to another level.
While “Banty Rooster Blues” is played as a straight, slide-driven 12-bar blues, the other Patton cover on the album, “Prayer For Death, Pt. 1”, opens with shimmering slide guitar that owes as much to Sonny Landreth as it does to Patton, with beautifully restrained backing from Lockwood, Roesch and Flynn, before slowly picking speed and energy as the song develops into a dancing instrumental.
The most surprising cover on the album, however, is Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe”, which is transformed from a vapid 1960s pop song into a West Coast swing number with a cool descending chord progression at the end of each verse and a catchy guitar/organ harmony lick in each chorus.
The majority of songs on Hen House are mid-paced foot-tappers with the sole ballad being “I’ve Cried For You” with more lovely keyboard work from Flynn. This is blues-roots-rock dancing music that will work just as well as driving companionship on a long road trip. Well worth investigating.