2010 was a year of making noise and news for the Band of Heathens. With 200-plus show dates, a fifth anniversary celebration, appearances at Lollapalooza and other top national festivals and a taping of Austin City Limits with Elvis Costello, it is remarkable that the Heathens even found time to write and record a new studio album, but they did.
The result is Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster’s Son, a surprising, multi-faceted gem of a disc. Their third studio album and the fifth release overall, Top Hat Crown displays the wide range of classic influences fans and critics have come to admire in the band, yet they’ve added, built and grown. Producer George Reiff, celebrated for his work with the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson, the Courtyard Hounds (Martie Maguire and Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks) and Ray Wylie Hubbard, tended to the album’s vibe and spirit, which is reaching, rocking, bluesy, funky and enjoyable as hell, from its rocking opening to its serene acoustic conclusion.
The Band of Heathens is constantly being compared to The Band because of the musical finesse that overlays their timeless, rootsy core. And the three founding members are all skilled multi-instrumentalists who can play almost any position in the field. But TBoH has reached so many fans so fast because of the echoes of and subtle homage to so many different artists at the core of the Americana canon, including Tom Petty, Tony Joe White, the Grateful Dead, Leon Russell, George Harrison, and other rarified stylists. You can hear a little of all that at a Heathens show or on disc, and Top Hat Crown feels like the most coherent and mature encapsulation of those elements so far.
Given the timelessness of their sound, one gets the sense that Ed Jurdi, Gordy Quist and Colin Brooks would have gravitated toward the same essential feel had they met in 1975 or 2045. As it happens, it was in 2006 after each songwriter had established residency gigs on the same night of the week at Momo’s, an eclectic-minded club on Austin’s famous Sixth Street. Friendship, semi-regular sit-ins and harmony jags gelled into something quite rare: a band with three frontmen, each with enough humility and passion to invest in the larger project. The sum transcended the parts. Bassist Seth Whitney was a member from the get-go. Drummer John Chipman joined in 2007 as their road calendar got heavier.
The Heathens took their time getting their first studio album out, but when that eponymous debut was released in 2008, they proved they could write and record a coherent statement that measured up to their show. They followed relatively quickly with One Foot in the Ether toward the end of 2009. Both shot to the top of the Americana chart and remained there for months, evincing a longevity rare in any format of music. Each added songs to the band’s set lists that have become staples and favorites: “Jackson Station,” “Cornbread,” frequent set closer “Don’t Call on Me” and the rocking, cathartic “L.A. County Blues.”
Other kinds of recognition and respect rolled in. TBoH was honored as Best New Band at the Austin Music Awards and nominated as Best Duo or Group by the Americana Music Awards. The Wall Street Journal’s Jim Fusilli called theirs the best set he saw during South by Southwest 2009. And the rest of the press has been equally effusive: The Dallas Morning News calls them “a must-see show.” Maverick magazine says they’re “magnificent.”
One can anticipate similar praise for Top Hat Crown, as it stretches without breaking faith with the feel and integrity that got the Band of Heathens this far. Opener “Medicine Man” sets a hoodoo tone with slappy upright piano and a swaggering lyric sung by Gordy Quist.
Another early Quist lead is “Polaroid,” which the guys say was influenced by the Jayhawks and mid-career Beatles. It coasts along on a robust acoustic strum decorated by jangly chiming electric guitar — a pluperfect fusion of pop and roots. Ed Jurdi gets his first lead vocal licks in with “Should Have Known,” a deeply bluesy slow shake that bolsters the regret of the song. Colin Brooks evokes current events and the craziness of modernity with “Enough,” whose mantra-like lyric and mid-tempo groove will have people nodding along in time. Brooks also shines with his lead on “Gravity,” a tour-de-force of forward motion and organ-generated psychedelic colors. Then some bone-rattle percussion ushers in a glowing, single-chord jam ride and a three-part chorus that swells with love.
Fans of the band will note one familiar song here. “Free Again” was written, recorded and released as a single in a blast of energy in the summer of 2010, inspired by the mind-boggling Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It’s sincere and sarcastic, playful and chastising. And it’s part of a Louisiana theme that closes out the album and ties the whole project together. “Hurricane,” the album’s lone cover, a Nashville-written tune from an old Levon Helm album, is a poignant portrait of an aging Gulf Coast salt reflecting on storms and eerily anticipating Katrina. And “Gris Gris Satchel,” the final cut, is a gorgeous and soothing acoustic tune that evokes old New Orleans and memories of great Crosby, Stills & Nash tracks.
Like that historic group, the Band of Heathens is distinguished by collaboration and load-sharing. And while songwriting and vocal duties are chiefly handled by the three guys across the front of the stage, they are decidedly a five-man band, benefitting from the equal input of all. This can lead to a lot of deliberation and creative tension. But it also means the music that emerges has been through five filters and enjoyed the collaborative creative power of five music-loving minds. “When I write a song with Ed or Colin, I usually hear it a certain way in my head,” says Quist about the power of the process. “When we bring it in to the band, the song almost always comes out turned on its head, leaning in another direction from where it started.” Music fans nationwide will hear that distilled quality upon the release of Top Hat Crown.
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