The Atomic Road Kings is the project of two men from different times but of the same mind…the veteran (his word, not mine) harmonica man Eric “Jailhouse” Von Herzen, noted for his association with Walter Trout, Social Distortion, Kid Ramos, Junior Watson, and the 44s, amongst others; and the young multi-instrumentalist Big Jon Atkinson, who has trodden the boards as guitarist for Kim Wilson’s solo project.
It bodes well for this debut release that it was recorded ‘in the raw’; by that I mean all of the songs were recorded on 1950s analogue equipment and the band were in the same room rather than emailing their parts and meshing them with pro-tools. They have also recruited a sparkling array of guest guitarists to back up the core musicians. The resulting output is full of nods to the roots and traditions of the early, seminal music that gave birth to the blues we love.
It opens with I’ve Got Time that, lyrically, is a sardonic tale of serving a prison sentence backed by the slow blues with a hint of Memphis as the harp and guitar work really well together; although the bass line is, for me, the star of the show with its infallible tone. The song is archetypal blues but is still a refreshing variation on the tried and tested structure. Rumours isn’t fluffy Mac, but a blues song birthed in the 30s (not from the band most will think of when they hear the phrasing as they got it from there too). It is close to both versions but with the harp injecting a tone and emotion of its own it again becomes fresh and the guitar solo has such individuality throughout its beautiful bends and runs. In Arms Reach owes its feel to BB but then goes off in its own direction to supply a blues-drenched bit of R’n’B with restrained harp and guitar solos that work so well. Have Your Way ups the pace a little and has touches of rock ‘n’ roll in between the blues runs…that bass is again an essential part of the success of this song. My Way Back Home revitalizes the train songs of old with the snare and harp providing the rolling sound…oh, and the bass! The acoustic guitar solo is inspired and needs a few listens to fully appreciate the complexity and composition. The title track, Clean Up The Blood, is a delicious slow blues with the electric guitar and harp trading runs behind the vocals and then each add solos of quality to make this my favourite…for the moment at least. Candy Man is a nod to the many blues songs of similar sweet-based titles…it also echoes the double entendres as Jon modestly tells of his competence as a lover as the instrumentation continues the blues feel with tone and humour. Ain’t For Me has a touch of Hank in the guitar intro even if it is all blues-based, built brilliantly around the guitar. You Got To Change is a shuffle with a bounce to it that the harp plays a clever melody around. The only cover here is listed as ‘traditional’ and, try as I might, I cannot pinpoint its genesis. Called Two-Sided Story, it is a harp-based blues with an infectious lilt to it. Vibrations bring a bit of slow funky blues to the table and that is reinforced by the inclusion of some neat piano. We also get another really inventive guitar solo that eschews the clichés many players employ in the blues today. Final track Back Down South is a ‘going home’ or redemption song that has a joyousness about it as the upright bass and the clever snare and stick work anchors the whole thing and allows the harp and guitar to range around the melody. A fine ending to a fine album.
Inevitably when first hearing this album, you will be tempted to hear only the inspirations of the riffs and melodies rather than the clever interpretations the band have achieved. If you’re tempted that way, remember the band I mentioned but didn’t name, built their reputation off exactly the same approach. Give this a few listens and you will fall for the masterful instrumentation, the gritty vocals that hit the spot every time, the inventive harp and guitar solos and the way the whole thing just works so well.
NINEdoodle paws out of TEN …
- I’ve Got Time
- In Arms Reach
- Have your Way
- My Way Back Home
- Clean Up The Blood
- Candy Man
- Ain’t For Me
- You Got To Change
- Two Sided Story
- Back Down South
All songs written and arranged by Jon Atkinson and Eric Von Herzen, except“Two Sided Story,” traditional.
Mixed, recorded and mastered byJon Atkinson at Bigtone Records.
Jon Atkinson– Vocals; lead guitar on tracks 4, 5, 6 & 9; rhythm guitar on tracks 3, 7, 8 & 10
Eric Von Herzen – Harmonica
Bill Stuve – Acoustic and electric bass
Malachi Johnson – Drums
Scot Smart – Lead guitar on tracks 3 & 7; rhythm guitar on tracks 4, 6, 8, 9 & 10
Danny Michel – Lead guitar on tracks 1 & 11; rhythm guitar on tracks 2 & 12
Tony Delgado – Lead guitar on track 2
Robert Welch – Piano on track 11