The Dodge Brothers
(The Sun Set Album Launch. 100 Club, Oxford St. Monday 9 September. Review by Matthew Wright)
You can buy a T shirt on the Dodge Brothers’ website with the slogan “Tunes of Proven Merit” on, and for this compelling line-up, playing country blues and rockabilly with infectious, stomping joy, historical pedigree matters. They launched their third album, The Sun Set (recorded at the Sun Studios in Memphis), at The 100 Club on Monday 9 September, amongst musical friends, thrilling to their potent evocation of blood, heartache and the railroad.
Unbelievably, this historically important venue nearly went bust a few years ago, and still has an endearingly, and for the melancholy subject matter of The Dodge Brothers, entirely appropriately insalubrious atmosphere with its car park-style lighting, and a gents most easily located by smell. The shabby gloom is of course moderated by the glamour of having hosted the most exciting musical talents of the past seventy years, from Louis Armstrong to the Sex Pistols.
The Dodge Brothers took the audience on a gleeful, full-fat romp through Americana, their sound balanced effectively between Mike Hammond’s jangling, swooping guitar, Al Hammond’s ecstatic percussion and Mark Kermode’s bass, driving and thumping like a drum in a marching band. Texture and harmonic variety comes from Aly Hirji, whose mandolin, in particular, is delicate and ornate where Hammond is forceful, and the wail of Kermode’s gritty harmonica (the secret is to use a taxi mic as distorter, apparently), one of the most distinctive sounds of the South.
The lyrics – many original to the band, though respectfully authentic – are often mournful, about heartbreak and homicide, but everyone’s having far too much fun to be seriously depressed. Heard live, it’s hugely and infectiously enjoyable: you’d have to nail your feet to the floor to stop yourself moving to the music. Like the garish, dissonant blues chords that resolve to molasses sweetness, the gloom is theatrical, and the heartache something that will ease with some rye and a good tune.
There are an awful lot of trains in the Dodge Bros, and it’s difficult, perhaps, for a British audience to imagine how potent a symbol of freedom and opportunity the American railroad is. Its rhythmic movement and clanking, shunting soundtrack has infused into over a century of popular blues, evoking the escape of millions of blacks from southern poverty and discrimination to (relative) security in the northern cities. While here, it symbolises the stifled instincts of middle-class life: the Brief Encounter affair that never happened, and the delayed commuter’s silent misery.
For British listeners unused to Americana, especially those used to the scrupulously contemporary aesthetic of modern jazz, there’s some weighty suspension of disbelief required to break into the warm, bluesy glow. The issue of how to relate to this music was summed up by members of the audience, as percussionist Al Hammond was putting on his improvised jug and washboard. (The original jug and skiffle bands could often only afford instruments improvised from household objects.) Hammond replaced the jug with an empty wine bottle, provoking a moment of surreal humour, in which the bottle’s provenance and vintage was questioned. (It was a Côtes du Rhône.) You can’t imagine that being an issue in Dodge City, somehow.
Interestingly, the album – though not the live performance – contains a couple of tracks designed to tackle the modern world head on. ‘Bankers Blues’, a powerful ballad about tax exile and inequality, shows these ol’ boys understand collateralised debt obligations, but the incongruity of style and subject matter inevitably undermines the song’s impact.
The album contains plenty of the band’s banter at the beginning and end of tracks, giving the impression of live performance. When they really are live, there’s a continuous conversation with the audience, making for both a warm and illuminating experience.
Authenticity in music is difficult to pin down, and anyway not always desirable. Existing fans of Americana will love The Dodge Brothers’ tunes that crackle with warmth, energy and humour, like a good fire. And if you’re new to the music, once you’re used to the trains, it’s difficult not to love their feisty, yet reverential versions of this fantastic music. Go there, and get the T shirt.