Arts & Entertainment, High Notes

Jonny Grave & The Tombstones: The Well

There’s blues and then there’s blues. Jonny Grave, a fixture on the local music scene, both solo and with his smokin’ hot band, The Tombstones, is a cat that understands the blues. But this ain’t your granddaddy’s twelve-bar blues. Their brand is a brutal smack-down of riff-rockin’, paint-peelin’, gut-hollerin’ blues. The kind of blues you heard from Howlin’ Wolf. The kind of blues you hear on the Fat Possum label. The kind of blues you’d hear out on the field. And with the Tombstones – Jeff Stapleton (guitar), The Rev. Aaron Pierce (bass), Terry Boes (harmonica), and Nathan Oliver (drums) – it’s the kind of blues that makes you want to dance. And dance hard.

Their latest release was recorded in 24 hours back in February and, oh my, it’s a scorcher. From the get-go, it’s clear that all those nights spent blowing the roof off of Madam’s Organ and Hill Country have totally paid off. This is a well oiled band and that is revealed as soon as the band kicks in on the opening, “Bona Fide”. Legend has it they have never had a rehearsal. They don’t need to rehearse. This is music that lives for the moment, thrives in the moment….their obvious telekinesis takes care of the rest. Jonny’s gritty riffs interweave with Jeff’s fluid, lightning-fast, finger-picked solos while The Rev lays down one hypnotic bass groove after another and Oliver holds it all together like a man possessed.

This is music that makes you want to drink. This is music that makes you want to move. This is music that makes you want to drive 100mph down an old dirt road, kicking up dust for miles around. And this is only the first track. When they kick into “Georgia Women”, you can’t help but boogie, even in your seat.

Eleven of these thirteen songs are originals and they reveal an artist who has spent a lifetime living and breathing the blues. There is an understanding that goes far deeper than many of his contemporaries. That understanding comes out in the country-fried “How Long?”, a number that distills the Allman Brothers Band into four minutes and eighteen seconds of pure fire. That understanding comes out in his slide guitar work. That understanding comes out in his voice. What a voice! Jonny possesses a guttural howl that is far older and wiser than his young age suggests. There is an authenticity to his voice that you just don’t often hear.

“Change My Clothes” gets a little trippy, with a dark groove reminiscent of Gov’t Mule. The Rev lays down a sinister bass line while Jonny and Jeff weave together in disparate synchronicity. Just under the surface, Terry Boes lays down some haunting harmonica that makes this track even cooler.

They pick up the pace with “Roustabout” and “Maryjo”, two numbers that could surely turn heads in the rowdiest juke joint. From there, they launch into the first of two cover songs. Most folks know “C.C. Rider” via Mitch Ryder’s revved-up version, and that’s the vibe that you usually hear on that song. This take, however, is slow and sexy, sleepy and dark, like some long-lost Sticky Fingers outtake, with even more grit, and is by far the best version of this song I have ever heard. I’d keep replaying it if it weren’t for the hyperactive rendition of the classic, “Rollin’ & Tumblin” that follows. From the point that Boes kicks it off with some serious 78rpm harp licks, you know this is going to burn and, folks, it does. This track is so upbeat that it is exhausting to listen to….I can only imagine the sweat that puddled in that room when they finished cutting this track.

The band slows things down, rightly so, for the title track, a swaying, swinging swagger that has that kind of dark, dirty groove that Hendrix spent the last two years of his life perfecting, and featuring a bridge-riff that would make him proud. And jealous.

From there they kick it back into high gear on the swampy shuffle of “Right Hand Road”, featuring some killer slide work from Jonny and good, greasy harmonica from Terry. One thing I love about this album is the track sequence. Every song is a burner, in one way or another, but it’s the dynamic rise and fall that makes this album such a success. Just like every album should, this one knows when to take a breather and when it’s time to kick ass. And, more importantly, when to split the difference, as they do on the slippery mid-tempo boogie of “Highway 95”, where they bring it down in such a way to suggest that this is one hell of a tune on stage. Those who have seen a Tombstones gig know that Jonny is a consummate performer. He not only commands a room – he owns it. This track gives but a mere speck of an insight into his onstage personality, but it’s a mighty speck.

Rounding out the album is the slow country-blues of “Richmond”, that perfect sort of 4am, last-call number, the kind where you can just picture the last hangers-on, clutching their glass in one hand, the other arm draped around some old, or new, friend, swaying the last drops of the evening away. When I talked of rise & fall….this is a perfect example of that.

But…just to remind you what they do best, they close out with “When I Die”, a revved-up talking blues that references a trip to that sacred spot of the blues….the crossroads. But the thing is, these guys are so hot…they don’t need no devil’s deal. They are the deal.

I could keep on with the praise but, you know what? It’ll never compare to the experience of seeing and hearing them. So do yourselves a favor and support these local cats by seeing them live and heading over tho Bandcamp and downloading this album. You won’t regret it.

Written by: Chris Anderson

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