The Howlin' Brothers
Hot time in the old town
From the May, 2014 issue
The revival of old-time music, a heartening thing to all but the most purist of old folkies, has divided into several strands, one of which has picked up the rowdy side of the tradition. The band Old Crow Medicine Show added some party- and drug-themed numbers and some punk spirit to this train of musical thought and rode it to near-stardom. Now OCMS itself has spawned successors, among them the Howlin' Brothers. Formed at Ithaca College in New York in 2003 (former Old Crow multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Willie Watson, also coming to the Ark in May, hails from the same area), they later moved to Tennessee and recorded an EP at Sun Studios in Memphis. Then came a full-length album entitled simply Howl.
The online magazine Buzz & Howl (are you sensing a theme here?) characterized the Howlin' Brothers as "Old Crow Medicine Show for people who like a little more sweat on the microphone," and indeed the energy level is high and the harmonies drastically simple. Some of their original songs rely on semi-shouted refrains or call-and-response patterns that can be amped up for a festival or dialed down a bit for a mostly seated crowd like that at the Ark.
The drug references of OCMS, though, are missing. And though the band draws, so far mostly in covers, on a variety of old-time traditions, they also break new ground. Their version of Muddy Waters' "My Dog Can't Bark" is a full-scale fusion of old-time music and humorous sexual Chicago blues, complete with harmonica and quiet yet extremely propulsive drumming. The Howlin' Brothers cover and speed up John Hartford's "The Julia Belle Swain," turning that hippie riverside idyll into rousing Saturday night fun. They have the chops to take on even familiar classics like "Take This Hammer" and (on the Sun Studios EP) "Dixie Fried" and make them their own, and their repertoire even goes back as far as the nineteenth-century "Boatman's Dance," a minstrel tune written, or at least noted down, by the composer of "Dixie."
The Howlin' Brothers come to the Ark May 29 with a new release, Trouble. The fusion of old-time music with the punk impulse has evolved from a novelty to a growing trend, and it will be bracing to see where its newest practitioners take it next.
[Originally published in May, 2014.]
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