Gunboat by Mike Stanton

Of Swampfoot and Gunboats: A Night Of Delta Twists on Classic Rock

It was the first real day of summer in Oxford, Mississippi.  The kind of day that took me back to my childhood growing up on a Mississippi Delta cotton farm in Tallahatchie County.  It had been Larrys_HTunseasonably cold and rainy for weeks, so the ground was saturated.  But the sun broke through the clouds early enough in the day to create a steamy atmosphere—a thickness that sticks to your bones like gumbo mud and makes curly hair poof and straight hair stick to your head like a drowned rat.

The air smelled of sweet, wet earth as I stepped out of my car on the square in Oxford, rare because the square is mostly concrete all around now, like Joni Mitchell’s worst nightmare.  But Joni would approve of my destination:  Proud Larry’s.  I realize it is most fitting that on this steamy Delta-like day the Greenwood, Mississippi-based band Gunboat is going to play.  I had caught a couple of songs at a Gunboat show a while back and was significantly intrigued.  I had to come back to see a full show.

Gunboat has been around for eleven years.  Its band members consist of Will Freeman on lead guitar, Jonbob Wise on keyboard and lead vocals, Bubba McCabe on bass guitar and lead vocals, and Harrison Smith on drums.  All of them grew up together in Greenwood, which creates a family-like atmosphere onstage that beautifully transfers to the crowd.

Opening that night for Gunboat was Swampfoot, which also includes Freeman plus Taylor Wood (also on guitar), Zechariah “Zac” Lloyd Tollotson on drums, and Stephen “Stevo” McCain on the bass.  They started out with an awesome jam that was up there with the likes of Phish with a twangy blues twist, then straight into “Whipping Post.” Next was “Cheap Sunglasses” by ZZ Top, into a Zeppelin-like jam, southern style, then into a Panic-Party-At-Your Mama’s-House-like come down…then straight into “No Speak, No Slave” by the Black Crowes.  Zac’s voice sounds like a great eighties hair band singer—in a good way.  With the kitchy comedy-type style of the band, it works beautifully.  Swampfoot goes into a totally new way of playing “One Way Out,” a song originally recorded by the Mississippi Delta blues great Sonny Boy Williamson (a Tallahatchie County native, like me), and made famous by the Allman Brothers.  The Johnny B. Goode-like jam at the end by Taylor Wood was killer.  Next was the Pink Floyd song, “Have a Cigar” with Kell Kellum on pedal steel.  It was spot on—with a Delta blues feel to it.  Kell is also a native of Greenwood, and it came through clearly in his pedal steel solo, giving the song a haunting, country/blues fusion effect.  If this was setting the bar for the night, I knew I was in for a helluva show once Gunboat took the stage.

Well before the start of the Gunboat show, I noticed that the Gunboat crowd is such a fun crowd.  They all seem to know each other, and all seem to be friends.  It felt more like a family reunion than a show—a feeling that I have only gotten with certain bands, Widespread Panic being one of them.  When the band came onstage, Will Freeman did a call-and-response to the crowd, very reminiscent of Colonel Bruce’s “Cheese Frog Zambie” salute.  The band’s original “Happy Hour” started off the set—a blistering Beanland-like, boogie-woogie ballad written and sung by Jonbob Wise, with a really gritty, bluesy edge.  Jonbob’s gravelly voice is perfect for it, and his piano solos are even better.

“Modern Day Reggae,” written and sung by Bubba McCabe, came later.  The chorus begins with, “Mr. Johnson where did you go?”  And as I listen to Will Freeman’s fantastic solo, I’m thinking that I know exactly where Mr. Johnson went—straight into this young man’s fingers.  Freeman flies through his solos effortlessly, with the complete conviction that what he is playing is good. Robert Johnson had a kind of cocksure attitude toward his music ability that can clearly be heard in his live recordings.  Freeman has that same kind of self-assuredness—he is fully aware of his great talent and he wants the crowd to know it, too.

Then into a jammy, keyboard-lead melody by Jonbob that brings the room down like a feather to the floor—it is the intro to “These Balls,” a hilarious song written and sung by Jonbob.  Then it’s on to “Stranglehold” by Ted Nugent, which has become a boilerplate song for the band.  The reference to the movie “Dazed and Confused” is obvious, and there is much more to be drawn from that reference than just “Stranglehold” being on the soundtrack to the movie.  The band’s onstage presence resonates with the “School’s Out For Summer” attitude that is so prevalent in “Dazed”.   Gunboat shows bring the audience back to a simpler, more carefree time in their minds.

Then back > into “Modern Day Reggae” for its last verse—another round of that call and response similar to, “Cheesefrog” (which everyone seems to know but me), and a shout out to the bartender.

Listen to  “Modern Day Reggae > These Balls > Just a Jam > Stranglehold > Modern Day Reggae”

A spaced-out, Phish-like jam finished a song called “El Salvador”, and > “Lennox Man,” a touching song written and sung by Jonbob.  It perfectly ends the show, being reminiscent of the Delta and the ambiance of that special alluvial plane…a lot like Gunboat.  And that’s it.  And I am blown away.

I sat down with Will Freeman to find out a more about the band that had just blown me away on the Larry’s stage.

19 willDid your upbringing in Greenwood, MS, have any influence on your music style?

It did.  I was always exposed to it from an early age.  My father [Johnny Freeman] played with the Gants when he was a teenager, and my uncle on my mother’s side played music and even worked for Fender guitar; so not necessarily the style of my music, but it definitely made me push to play music.

You mention your dad…

That’s right.  He was an original member of the Gants, and then finished up with them as well.

Would you say the Gants influenced your music style?

Yes.  I didn’t really get into the Gants until I was about seventeen or eighteen.  There was always Motown playing in the house, or a Beatles documentary on T.V., and those were what influenced the Gants, so that influenced me as well.

Who are your main musical influences?

It’s really just the standard eighth-grade favorites.  I am a huge Pink Floyd fan, Zeppelin, Garcia.  Trey Anastasio had a big impact on the way I play guitar.  I try to pay tribute to those guys.

What are your favorite bands to go see live?

Really just any band.  I like big production shows like the Stones.  Those big production shows that are really over-the-top are always great.  Or even if it’s just a little bar with just two people in it—it doesn’t matter—as long as it’s good.  I just love seeing live music.

How did Gunboat come about?

Gunboat started when I had just dropped out of Ole Miss and moved back to Greenwood when I was nineteen years old.  There was a guy named Will Pleasants that had a band with Jonbob Wise, our keyboard player, and they were playing so much that they needed a roadie.  I was just this nineteen-year-old kid who was more than happy to help because I loved music and really wanted a band of my own some day.  So he let me sit in [with his band], and it went well.  I told him that I had these two other guys, Bubba McCabe and Harrison Smith, who weren’t doing anything and so we all four [with Jonbob Wise from Pleasant’s band] got together and jammed, and it went great.  That was the start of Gunboat.  And we weren’t called Gunboat for the first year.  Will Pleasants left after that first year.  It was around that time that we started making our own mold where Jonbob and Bubba were writing the music and I was developing my tone and the way I play guitar.  So that’s how it started and that’s how I came to start playing live music.

Why the name, “Gunboat”?

It took a year to name Gunboat.  We had just started with about two weeks of practice and immediately started playing shows, and a name was something we could never agree on.  And Harrison had this hat that said, “Gunboat”—it was just a really random hat—we don’t even know where it is anymore.  But we always kept joking about just naming that band after this stupid hat.  So, after the departure of an original member, we just said, “whatever” and named the band Gunboat.

I’ve noticed that you guys draw a dancing crowd, whereas these days you don’t see much of that unless it’s a techno-type DJ show.  What is it about Gunboat that makes people want to dance?

It’s been eleven years since Gunboat started, and our sound has not really evolved, which is fine—that’s the way I like it and I think that’s the way the other guys [in the band] like it, too.  So, it’s kind-of like a reminder of that late ‘90’s, early 2000’s scene when there wasn’t a lot of techno or that kind of stuff.  I am glad to see music evolve like that, and I enjoy some of that music, but I think our decision to remain in that mode of playing good ‘ol rock and roll has helped, and I think it takes people back to those days when they loved to dance.

What is the song, “Modern Day Reggae” about?

The lyrics to MDR were written by Bubba.  It’s about the experience of driving down Money Road, a road north of Greenwood where the kids from Greenwood would go to ride around and drink beer and just have a good time.  So, of course, we did it as well.  It was a very important place for the kids growing up at that time because we could go out there and listen to whatever music we wanted—rap, country, Phish.  Robert Johnson is buried out there.  It has just been confirmed that his official gravesite is there in the graveyard of an old Baptist church.

 

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The guys in Gunboat are a band of brothers. Johnbob Wise, the band’s keyboard player, told me a little about how that feeling of brotherhood has shaped their music.7 harrison johnbob

How does the music process happen with Gunboat?

Freeman and I sit down and he plays a rift and I put words to it and change up some of the progressions and [we would] make a song that way.  A lot of them were just [made by] me sitting in my living room at my upright piano, and it always happened in the morning-time for some reason.  I would write a song and bring it to the guys, and they always did what they wanted to with them.  They would put their input in on all of them.

What makes you choose the covers you play?

I don’t choose a whole lot of the covers, really.  Freeman and Bubba do mainly.  If something has a good baseline [Bubba] loves, or if it’s something that Freeman likes to play on guitar, we play it.  We do Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”—with a heavy guitar and drums, which Harrison loves, and the Ted Nugent song, “Stranglehold”—very hard guitar parts in that.  So we all work together on the covers, and make sure to feature our all-star, Will Freeman, in the songs.

Who writes the majority of the songs?

I do.  I write most them.  Bubba writes some, too.  But everybody puts their two cents in.  We give the songs to [the rest of the band] and let Harrison go on all of them and let Bubba do his own baselines—let Will do his own guitar.  Music-wise it is all of us.  I’ll get the melody down and then we figure out the rest together.

And then the lyrics…

The lyrics.  That’s me.  As they are, that’s me.

What are songs about, mostly?

I try to be positive.  But they are mainly about women.

Sad songs about women?

Some.  It depends.  Mainly praising the moment with a woman.  Some of them are sad…just different stories.

You have been called a “JoJo Herman that can sing”.   What is your response to that?

Well, I listened to my share of Widespread Panic, and more Beanland than anything.  But when I was younger, before I had even heard of them, I was a big Dr. John fan.  And I have a deep voice, a low voice, so it’s going to come out that way.  So I think of myself more of a “Dr. John” [voice] than anything.  I wanted to be Dr. John when I was young.

How long have you been playing the piano?

Since I was about fifteen years old.  I taught myself.  That’s why you’ll notice that my fingering is all screwed up—nothing’s normal about the way I play.  It holds me back in a lot of ways, because I don’t know what I’m doing; but I have created a rhythm style of my own that I like, and it has become a part of the band’s sound.

Have you done any studio work?

We have.  We did some recording in our hometown at Charles Hall Studio.  We laid down four songs and it was our first time in the studio.  And then we did some work over at Delta State [University]…we laid down four more songs over there, but never finished anything.  I don’t know why.  I guess we procrastinate a lot.  We just never finished anything up.

Do you plan to do a studio album?

We plan to.  We figure after ten years [of playing] we’ll call it, “Ten Years”.

Do you seek fame and fortune?

(Laughing)  No…absolutely not.

What do you seek?

Just having fun…playing music with these guys, and I hope we do it as long as we are able to.  I have always wanted to do this since I was very young, and I enjoy doing it and I hope we continue to do it.  It is about the music, and the friendship—the bond we all have together.  We have a good time.

 

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