february 2009

When You're Hot, You're Hot

By David McGee

Thompson Ward

On their impressive debut album, Mississippi-born and -bred Steve Thompson and Bryan Ward fuse the best elements of Magnolia State groove to horn-infused Memphis and Macon rock 'n' soul, the better to carry the message of carefully crafted lyrics gracefully balancing the playful and the provocative. Both being men of deep faith and unconditional love of family and friends, Thompson and Ward recognize that actions have consequences, so their narratives typically acknowledge this immutable fact. But let's not get too heavy here: Porch Funk goes down easy; it's not didactic—you can take what you want from the messages and TW won't begrudge you your interpretations—it's a downright soul shaking, swamp-infested, righteously gospelized, gutbucket, steamrolling, good humored but serious minded musical juggernaut designed to get the house rockin' and stinkin' with profusely sweating bodies (Rockin' and Stinkin' is hereby submitted as the title of their second album). Would you expect anything less from an endeavor that is its own little party, with entertainment courtesy a strictly powerhouse rhythm section, a furiously pumping horn section, a raft of guitars howling, searing and wailing, a thoroughly consecrated and house wrecking female gospel chorus of Gale Myers, Angela Primm and Shawna P. emoting with a searing urgency reminiscent of Claudia Linnear, Clydie King, Rita Coolidge, Merry Clayton and the Honkettes back in the glory days of Leon Russell, Joe Cocker and the Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and the Skynyrd boys? Such is the grand support given the riveting lead vocals of Thompson and Ward themselves, one of whom sings with a gutsy, lowdown growl, the other with a plaintive, affecting tenor (the liners don't indicate which one is singing when, so we'll have to keep the kudos generic, but they are well earned, make no mistake). Porch Funk is not about quiet, meditative moments; it's about seizing the moment, with gusto, so don't come to it looking for what the honky tonkers call "buckle polishers" (i.e., romantic ballads suitable for slow dancing). No less than 28 credited musicians help make this happen, and all of them are deeply invested in the life-affirming groove.

Hard to decide which songs to point out as the most potent examples of Thompson Ward's voice at its most compelling. Certainly one candidate would be "Riverside." The song breaks loose at the start behind sputtering twin guitars and a wah-wah effect. The singer enters declaiming the tale of a country boy who gets chewed up by the big city and left "alone, on a mean streak," and homesick. Against the thundering guitar riffs someone is growling a bass line that wouldn't have been out of place on a vintage Kool and the Gang recording ("Jungle Boogie" is not a bad comparison to make), and throughout there's a subtle but effective use of a vocoder as an additional effect; rising out of this tumult is one of the gospel gals, singing and shouting "down by the riverside!" before the others join her and the song choogles into a full-on sprint, with all these elements swirling around the track and the music charging mercilessly ahead. It's fairly slight lyrically, and the story doesn't develop, but it's utterly infectious, too—you won't forget it. Interestingly, the next song, "Hump," picks up where "Riverside" stops, telling of a down-on-his-luck fellow who works hard without ever getting ahead, "just can't get over that hump," as the lyric goes. With the guitars still sputtering and churning behind them, the players get into a frenzied gospel call-and-response round, with the gals in a heated exchange with one another, shouting and whooping all the way to the end. That sets up the driving boogie of "Desperate Times," a topical barnburner fueled by a frantic, circular guitar riff, a screaming blues harmonica and some more wah-wah guitar, all underscoring some pointed criticism of authority figures who pull rank on the powerless in "difficult times." Having made their point lyrically, Thompson Ward then let the music convey the fury they feel, adding the sound of a howling, malevolent wind to the white-hot guitar-harmonica assault. But that's not where it ends; instead it exits upon wings of an eerie, psychedelic drone of electronic tanpura, a serene moment beautifully sequenced to set up the organ-rich, hymn-like meditation, "Theresa," a full-on and open-hearted love song that winds up in the rich soil of Delaney & Bonnie territory, as a shouting, stomping gospel cry of the soul, with the gals once again taking it home in soul stirring style, hollering "Shine your light! Shine your light!" as the singer proclaims, "Thank you, Lord, for my Theresa!" It's pure southern gospel soul at its very apex, a performance of classic dimension deeply rooted in its point of origin.

From here it's right into the herky-jerky rhythms and half-spoken, half-sung diatribe of "Stank," wherein TW position themselves unambiguously with the vocal (as opposed to silent) majority of Americans who have had quite enough of partisan politics and are demanding socially responsible behavior from their elected representatives. "Ain't Living Long" follows with a message to get yourself right, delivered in a sludgy, deep, dark Mississippi blues setting. Now, lest this sound like a whole lot of socially conscious mess, be advised that the guys celebrate a gal who is described as "innocence...decadence all wrapped up in one" in the surging "Deepest Mellow Sunset," exult over a woman's commitment to her man's well being in the funky, horn-enhanced "Happiness," and have a grand ol' time kicking out the jams on two unexpected cover songs: the sly, stuttering, album opening version of Jim Stafford's 1974 hit, "Spiders and Snakes," and later on a high-spirited, party hearty, boogie down treatment of Jerry Reed's 1970 hit, "Amos Moses." In the latter, one of the guys has a great time with a swampy, scenery-chewing vocal as the guitars juke around and the gospel gals moan and wail, in a treatment that at once puts TW's stamp on the song but also honors a great artist's original version. A rendition so generously endowed with swamp funk, good humor and church spirit as this would surely elicit a smile from the Guitar Man if he were here to take it all in. Kindred spirits will do that to each other. Thompson Ward is in very good company right off the bat, and what this album suggests of the band's growth potential is every bit as awesome as a Jerry Reed lick. Hey, when you're hot, you're hot.

Buy it at www.thompsonward.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024