Johnny and The MoTones – Highway 51
10 tracks | 41 minutes
“Highway 51 starts in Hurley, Wisconsin and ends in New Orleans, Louisiana…like the MoTones sound!” This quote describes Mitch Viegut (guitars, lead vocals) and Johnny Altenbrugh (piano, lead vocals) 5th album aptly. Their newest effort to get to here from there shows just how far they’ve come. This two-headed blues monster album is partly recorded in Nashville at Warner Brothers Recording Studios. This Nashville connection shows their desire to hit the road and explore what’s out there beyond their home turf. They also recorded at a couple of studios in their home state as well. As of April they hit #7 on the RMR (Roots Music Report). The results are in and they are getting some buzz.
The core group is tight featuring: Bruce Lammers on bass; Ryan Korb on drums; John Greiner on Tenor Sax and Pat Phalen on trumpet. “Also appearing…” seems to be the listing of another full outfit of Nashville players. That crew consists of Travis King on drums; Thomas Banks on bass; Paula Hall on backing vocals; Tom Washatka on tenor sax; and Ben Peterson on trumpet. Both sides of the coin match well.
The two lead vocalists couldn’t be more different. Mitch has the classic rocking blues scream that is sweet, smooth and pairs well with his swinging slide guitar parts and classic crunchy rock sound. John is the softer side. He has the snarky barroom singer/ songwriter style of a David Bromberg. He pleasantly reflects on what could have been and what’s not going to be but that it will all turn out OK in the end. Mitch sings about girls gone bad and other hard luck stories soaked in road weary grit. He’s game for the next day wherever that may be. John’s more of the stay at home guy trying to sneak out for the evening and Mitch is trying to find his home on the road after many late nights.
The best example of John’s storytelling is “Make It”. Which is a hit in the sense that a band that is clearly not going to make it still believing they’re “…gonna make it now”. This is so self-deluding that it’s funny. It’s also sweet and charming enough for everyone to relate to, not just musicians listening to their latest studio recording and proclaiming a fact before it happens, then having to take a job at the local whatever. His piano playing rollicks along keeping the flames of hope alive. Mitch has his charms too albeit darker and drunker in nature. “Tell Me Something” is a tale of his gal that he just knows there is something rotten about her past or her family, and he’s begging anyone with information to let him in on it so at least he’s forewarned about the storm-a-coming.
The best tune is the instrumental “Long Live The Pack” a “Peter Gunn Theme” styled affair with many classic big blues band twists and turns. This seems to be their sweet spot where their playing together meshes so well that it’s just one band doing their thing and making the crowd go wild in the process. Throughout the album they take turns lead singing. It’s a one for me, one for you situation. Each song is distinctly different in style and mood which is nice for variety. The only missed opportunity is not doing a song together vocally either trading verses and meeting on the chorus or working up a clever harmony here and there.
The take away is that this album is all originals without being derivative sounding. It contains some of the best composed of today’s music. They are seasoned pros with serious chops that do not go to waste. Are they gonna “Make It”? Well that all depends on what’s making it in today’s fractured America. They get to do what they love and get to live to play another day. Maybe that is what it’s all about after all.