In late February I went to a show at Old Ironsides, my first. I had come to see Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, an Americana rock group from San Francisco that I had previously seen absolutely dominate a set at High Sierra Music Festival.
The other two acts on the bill were local bands Honyock and Walking Spanish. It’s not surprising that a band with a nationwide reputation and fan base would enlist a couple local stalwarts to join them on stage and ensure a packed house.
What was surprising, to me at least, was that Walking Spanish wasn’t opening for Nicki Bluhm. Nicki Bluhm was opening for Walking Spanish.
Knowing what an incredible show the Gramblers put on, I was skeptical (apprehensive?) that the young bucks would be able to follow them without being overshadowed. There are many a big name national act who would pale by comparison, and there’s no shame in it. Nicki and the boys are just that good.
As it turned out, my concerns were unfounded. Alex Nelson (lead singer, guitarist and songwriter) and the boys (Timothy Picchi on bass, Christopher Haislet on keys, Robert Mills II on drums and Thomas Gunterman on violin) were more than up for the challenge. They played a phenomenal set, brilliantly opening with a Mother Hips cover, a nod to Tim Bluhm, founding member of the Hips, the Gramblers and Nicki’s husband. They also played a Depeche Mode cover, which is always a good decision.
Where they really impressed, however, was with their original songs, many of which were from their upcoming album, "Wishbones."
Walking Spanish is throwing its "Wishbones" release party Friday at Old Ironsides. I was able to procure a copy of the album in advance, and boy howdy, it’s a barn burner.
Their eponymous debut (2006) had flashes of brilliance, displaying their skill as musicians, but was raw, unpolished. Their new album has no holes. It is a complete work. "Wishbones" is the kind of album that you can listen to from start to finish, on repeat, and I’ve been doing just that.
The songs are fully developed. The solos and interludes are searing but restrained, integral to the songs. It’s all about the songs on this record.
The album starts with "What If You Knew My Name?" a key-heavy toe-tapper whose poppy sensibilities belie its lamenting lyrics. The song is broken up with a fantastic instrumental interlude vaguely reminiscent of the "Layla" coda. Awesome.
Up next is "Sarah Marie," which is a great example of Nelson’s growth as a songwriter. What begins as a slow, bluesy ode to the titular young lady becomes something very different. The song picks up pace steadily through the first four verses before entering an intermezzo momentarily reminiscent of San Francisco’s Jellyfish, from which they emerge with crushing staccato power cords and then a prog rock guitar riff that leads back to whence they had come. It ends with Nelson issuing a warning, "Your days are numbered/ better start to count." All this in a 2:35 song. One of the best tracks on the album.
"Jacksin (Is Long Gone)" is another one. It’s the rare rock song that makes good use of an accordion and has a bouncy, almost polka-esque theme running throughout. The song tells the story of a veteran who finds his lady with another man, with tragic results. Nelson extends himself as a storyteller on "Jacksin", and the band extends themselves as well with several instrumental interludes of varying styles.
"Sweet Cherry Lane" is a mournful, poignant ballad to love lost. "I watched the mountain crumble as your heart forgot my name," Nelson sings. "The picture frames are being emptied now/ what a cheap memory."
The album takes its name from the fifth track, "Counterfeit Wishbones." As good as it is on the album (very), the rollicking power rocker is better live, as it affords the band such an opportunity to extend the already crunchy instrumental jams, bringing the crowd to theretofore unfound heights. I remember it well from last month and look forward to seeing it again on Friday.
"Amor Vincit Omnia" proves that Nelson can write a love song that isn’t mournful or tragic. Love conquers all. A beautiful sentiment and a beautiful song. (Upon closer inspection, it isn’t entirely rainbows and sunshine after all. Nelson sings, "Rock and roll has tamed my soul, and left me smiling at the gallows pole." "Tiptoe through the Tulips" this ain’t.
Another great song, "The Simple Moves," combines a rip-roaring Skynyrd-esque riff, with some soulful keys and poignant lyrics ("It’s hard to be somebody when ‘somebody’ is your name"). The guitar-driven coda to this track would make the boys from Jacksonville proud.
"The Soldiers Lullaby" tells another sad tale, this of a soldier (natch) dying in battle and pining for his love. It’s got an old-timey saloon feel to it, and I picture the protagonist losing his life somewhere in Europe during either the Great War or WWII. A beautiful love song that finishes on a hopeful note. "I’ll build us a house in heaven to share," Nelson sings, channeling the young combatant, "and I’ll wait, I’ll wait for you there."
"Mama Don’t Love Him" features an epic piano solo by Nelson’s older brother, Jackie Greene, who also produced the album and contributes backing vocals, organ and tambourine at various junctures.
The album closes with its longest song, "Holiday Years." It’s a super upbeat dance track about going on vacation.
Just kidding, it’s a powerfully poignant and lovely ballad. Nelson sends us off with this: "Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, everything must change, I’ll be gone/ so long."
It is a hell of an album, if a bit melancholy. Hey, it’s the trials and tribulations in life that generally lead to the greatest pieces of art. Without it, you get this. Nobody wants that.
The "Wishbones" CD release party is at 9 p.m. on Friday.
Opening for Walking Spanish will be local rockers Prieta, about whom illustrious local music scribe Aaron Davis once said, "They’ll knock your penis off, great band!" I’m seriously looking forward to them.
Tickets are $7.
I’ll see you on the dance floor.