Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys, with their rockabilly and swinging country music, stand alongside bluesman James Harman in setting the standard for renewing past forms and creating with them a vibrant, joyful present.
Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent). Three stars denote a solid recommendation.
*** 1/2, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, “Swingin’ West”, HighTone If you can’t afford Prozac, try Big Sandy. When this Anaheim-based singer and band strike up, wall-to-wall delight is sure to follow.
You don’t have to be a student of the roots of rock ‘n’ roll and country music to experience this natural mood elevation: So much infectious good spirit suffuses the music that it could leave Ice Cube or Trent Reznor with dopey, delighted grins.
Robert (Big Sandy) Williams’ cottony, effortlessly smiling vocal delivery joins with playful, unmannered, yet dead-on authentic roots instrumental work, and the effect is simply enlivening. Lovers of Western swing, the style that dominates the band’s fourth album, will think they’ve been taken back to Tulsa with Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. (Its other main influence, Sun Records rockabilly circa 1954-57, is largely set aside here).
The result is music that sounds as if made during the Depression yet has the spark and vibrancy to put a dent in ‘90s-variety, lowercase depression. A good measure of ‘50s-vintage honky-tonk is also served, with similar insouciance and skill, yielding similar results.
For flavor, they add a Tex-Mex polka, and an instrumental, “Murphy’s Law,” that starts as a swinging rag before lurching into a chromatic, jazzy section in which the sure-footed band jumps off into dizzy near-chaos, then finds its way back.
Williams, who writes most of the material, can charm with the sweetness of a self-effacing love song such as “Music to Her Ears,” or score with the broad humor of “My Sinful Days Are Over,” which is both a gentle spoof on revival-tent hypocrisy and a rollicking ode to a life of carefree misbehavior.
Light as they are, the songs aren’t lightweight: Big Sandy sings about human foibles, often taking a comic slant on scenarios of rejection and betrayal.
It’s precisely the band’s willingness to be insouciant in the face of cares that makes the music such a tonic; where silly escapism leaves a hollow feeling, hearing real difficulties being faced with high spirits can truly gladden and encourage.
In steel guitarist Lee Jeffriess and lead guitarist Ashley Kingman, who both debuted with the band on last year’s equally delightful “Jumpin’ From 6 to 6,” Big Sandy has found Englishmen so adept with American roots music that they call to mind such accomplished countrymen as guitarist Albert Lee and the lads of Rockpile.
Their playing is light-footed and lean, unerring and wonderfully interactive. Playing off of each other, they call to mind a couple of gleeful cartoon mice tumbling and cavorting in defiance of gravity. Bassist Wally Hersom, who founded the band with Williams in 1988, joins with often-explosive drummer Bobby Trimble in making the music jump. Producer Dave Alvin expands the sound on some tracks with two splendid session men, pianist Carl Leyland and fiddler Brantley Kearns.
Set against the overall delight of the album is a single hurtin’ song, a cover of Hank Cochran’s “A Healer Like Time.” As with last year’s rendition of Hank Williams’ “Weary Blues From Waitin’,” Williams sings sublimely while striking a mood of deep remorse. If he ever gets around to doing a whole album of sad ballads, it will be an event.
Otherwise, the only bittersweetness here lies in the thought that, if Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys had been around 40 or 50 years ago, they would now be regarded as part of the nation’s treasury of wonderful roots music.
Come to think of it, they are part of it anyway.
* Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys and Junior Brown play a free concert tonight at 7:30 at the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica. Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys also play Sept. 15 at Linda’s Doll Hut in Anaheim.