They’re an intriguing bunch, The Steepwater Band. As the title track of Turn Of The Wheel kicks off, with a loose-limbed drum pattern that sidesteps into crunching, fuzzed up guitar chords and some slippery slide playing, the Black Crowes immediately spring to mind as a reference point. And if that kind of Southern rock is your bag then you’ll certainly enjoy this, not least for the prevalence and style of the aforementioned slide playing. But maybe because the Steepwater gang are from Chicago, their sound touches more bases than just Dixie.
|The Steepwater Band - peace and love, but not from Dixie
Pic by Timothy Schmidt
On ‘Big On Pictures’, for example, they crank out some jagged, raw riffing that’s very much in a Neil Young rockin’ vein, and then up the ante with a vocal from Jeff Massey that leans towards keening, and an edgy guitar solo that’s like an itch you can’t scratch. (Listening to the title track of their previous album, Shake Your Faith, I decided these guys could deliver a note perfect take on 'Like A Hurricane' in their sleep.)
And just as the Crowes and others of their ilk often had an ear for British Invasion bands, so the Steeps - as I’m sure their friends never call them - throw out some hints of the Stones and the Fab Four. There’s an air of ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ in the riff of the catchy ‘Running From The Storm’ for example (perhaps by way of Drive-By Truckers' 'Ramon Casiano'), mixed in with a rumbling rhythm guitar riff and some gritty slide, and a lyric that sardonically observes that “The future’s bright but it’s terrible here”. ‘Please The Believer’ takes a Stonesy chugging riff, roughs it up a bit and adds some bright piano chords courtesy of guest Chris Grove to produce a good-time groove. ‘Make It Right’ doubles down on that vibe, complete with some very Stu-like piano, and topped off with a couple of guitar breaks, the first squealing and the second clean and bright. Then on the closing ‘The Peace You’re Looking For’ they switch horses to draw on mid-to-late period Beatles for an aspirational, affirmative tune.
One of the most original tracks though, is ‘That’s Not The Way’, an easy-going, mid-paced affair with some organ swimming around in the background, and an intriguing solo from guest sax man Terry Tritt that plays out over watery, almost surreal Fender Rhodes piano and shape-shifting guitar. And ‘Trance’ adds throbbing rhythm guitar to a shuffling rhythm from drummer Joe Winters and a slithering, off kilter guitar intro, and has a neat, smile-inducing turnaround progression leading to the chorus. But it’s also an instance of the slide guitar getting a bit too sweet to be wholesome – it’s a matter of personal taste, but I prefer my slide guitar gritty and edgy rather than swooning.
They can also get lighter and more reflective though, as on ‘In The Dust Behind’ which veers between the Eagles and Drive-By Truckers with its airy vocal and chiming chords leaning on an easy, swinging bass line from Joe Bishop, and a bleeping guitar solo that fleetingly evokes ‘Whiskey In The Jar’. And ironically, considering its title, ‘Abandon Ship’ also has a dreamy, hopeful quality, sonically less dense and built on acoustic strumming and slide that may be sweetly woozy but still works on this occasion.
Maybe Jeff Massey and fellow guitarist Eric Saylors are a bit too ready to take it in turns with a solo each at times, so that if they’re not careful songs can become overlong and a tad formulaic in structure. But it seems harsh to criticise when their playing is often so imaginative, and sonically varied.
The Steepwater Band have been around since 1998, and Turn Of The Wheel is their seventh album. So I’m kinda surprised that with material of this depth, and playing with this resonance, they haven’t made a bigger splash before now. Perhaps this turn of the wheel will give them the traction to break out and attract the bigger audience their music warrants.
Turn Of The Wheel is released by Diamond Day Records on 24 April, and can be pre-ordered here.