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Holy Ghost Building
Artist: The 77s
Label: Lo-Fidelity Records
Time: 11 tracks/45:36
I suppose it’s true that even the most outrageous among us get more introspective as we get older. A few years ago we saw mainstream Christian artists re-visiting the hymns ad nauseam. Well before that trend was popular, Russ Taff explored the origins of the gutsy gospel-rock that he was performing (what happened, Russ?) on his 1991 classic, Under Their Influence. Even earlier than that, the amazing Delaney & Bonnie and Friends let the world eavesdrop as they kicked back and got old-school with country blues and gospel on Motel Shot. More recently, Kevin Max’s excellent project, The Blood, mined the depths of jazz, blues, country and spirituals and dug up a musical travelogue of American gospel music styles ranging from the bare-bones recordings of pioneers like Blind Willie Johnson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to the contemporary efforts of The Original Blind Boys and Prince. Now Mike Roe, Mark Harmon and Bruce Spencer – collectively known as the 77s – delve into the rocky musical soil of the early blues, rockabilly, and bluegrass gospel recordings whose ghosts inhabit the structure of every four-chord rock and roll song from the early days of Sun Records to tomorrow’s downloaded mp3 file.
Holy Ghost Building is a natural for The 77s. In the world of Christian music, there are only a handful of true rockers; and very close to the top (and maybe even at the very top) of that list sit Roe, Harmon, and Spencer, wielding guitar, bass and drums like royal scepters. The band starts off this project with authority, launching into the familiar “I’m Working on a Building,” driven hard by a rockabilly / bluegrass rhythm that’ll knock you right off your front porch, even though the drums don’t really kick in hard ‘till about four minutes into the track. Harmon’s bass snakes in, around, and through the song with such animation the song could have been sub-titled, “Amazing Bass (How Sweet the Sound).” If low-down Louisiana blues is what you’re looking for, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” rocks from the first note and swings like the score of one of Max Fleischer’s more demented pre-Popeye cartoons. This track also features some very cool background vocals by the boys (“doot! doot! doot!”) while Mike plays some Brian Setzer-like big guitar riffs.
While it might sometimes be hard to tell where sincerity (“He’s A Mighty Good Leader”) ends and just plain fun ( “Stranger Won’t You Change Your Sinful Ways”) begins, the truth is, that the band seems to be having fun with the genre throughout the whole project, while respecting the truth of the gospel message at the same time. Roe seems to have a ball channeling Elvis as he works his way through “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again,” as the 77s mimic the standard back-up singer sound of the Sun studios – Roe’s “a well-a, when-a my ….” opening vocal phrase is priceless. The guitarist trades his pick for a bottleneck slide, and transforms into ‘Mississippi’ Mike Roe on “Everybody Ought to Pray Sometime,” singing in his best Blind Willie Johnson style.
Of course these guys are serious about the way they rock, and can play most other bands right off the stage. From the Johnny Winter – style blues rock of “You’re Gonna’ Be Sorry,” with its doubled slide and vocal riffs to the funky, Rolling Stones-inspired, “I’ll Remember You, Love, In my Prayers,” this trio rips through the harder-rocking tracks with a snarling, aggressive attack that only the best in the business know how to deliver. The drums thunder, the bass produces a sure foundation, the guitar is gut-wrenching and dazzles at the same time, and Roe’s vocals tease, scream, and even beg – the gospel message has seldom been placed in a more visceral setting.
The approach for this album was essentially back-to-basics; to record with mostly ideas and little rehearsal – to bring out The 77s in their raw form. The band, who also produced the project – succeeded in creating what might not exactly be a unique concept, but certainly one that has more energy and authentic spirit than other, more well-known and over-ballyhooed efforts of a similar nature (try listening to Kraus and Plant after this…).
The only possible misstep here is the inclusion of “A Lifetime Without You,” which is not only the sole original song on the CD, but features a kinder, gentler Mike Roe singing about a broken relationship. The song is out of step with the rest of the album and is in the unfortunate spot of following what should have been the project’s final song: the amazing “I’m Gonna’ Run to the City of Refuge,” which is a track that would make Jagger himself shake his head in awe.
Holy Ghost Building is a triumph. They flipped that house. I’m ready now for a project of all-new rockers from what just might be the best rock and roll band around.
(But almost losing half a tock for ending with “A Lifetime Without You”)
Having followed Mike Roe and the 77’s career since the early 1980’s, eclectic blues is a word best describing the brunt of their music. From the early new/alternative rock sound (Ping Pong Over The Abyss, All Fall Down) to the late ‘80’s/early ‘90’s alternative/ pop sensibility/blues concoctions (self-titled, 88, Sticks & Stones) to early/late ‘90’s hard rock/acoustic-infused/blues combinations (Pray Naked, Drowning In Land With Sight) to the present decade’s slightly experimental/dream/loop-based/acoustic blues (Fun With Sound, Orbis), Mike Roe and company’s eclectic blues have been an undercurrent throughout their lifespan.
With the connections made, Holy Ghost Building is a tribute to the early gospel blues writers who unknowingly would lay the foundation for the early rock and roll movement of the ‘50’s and ‘’60’s. Mike Roe has stretched the envelope for his fans, though those of us staying the course for years tend to accept wherever he stretches it.
The disc is one of their strongest to date. It had to be a project full of covers to pull it off. They seem to do well with cover songs. Those in attendance at this summer’s Cornerstone may agree with this, as evidenced by their Doors cover. My absolute favorite cuts are the slide guitar venture, “You’re Gonna Be Sorry” and “I’m Gonna Run To The City Of Refuge”. The one cut not belonging is actually the only one written by the 77’s, “A Lifetime Without You”. It is a good song though, just not in the groove of the album. On just about any other disc of theirs, it would fill in perfectly. This is another solid effort by veterans of this Christian rock scene.