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Album Fri Aug 21 2015

Barrence Whitfield and the Savages Pump Out Retro Blues-Punk


Barrence Whitfield and the Savages sound just like their name; you'd be hard-pressed to find a more stereotypical soul-blues moniker than "Barrence," and the Savages who back him up play exactly the type of distorted, raucous riffs you'd expect. Putting the two together results in a band that makes like Marty McFly and pumps old-fashioned rock 'n roll into a high wattage garage-bred overdrive. The question is whether or not bringing The Sonics' style forward fifty years holds water in the present musical landscape. And though aspects of BW and the Savages' new album Under the Savage Sky feel dated, its energy is undeniable and timeless.

The band will be playing shows at Schubas and SPACE in early September, but I think Kingston Mines would have been their ideal venue; though they hail from Boston, their musical tastes lie firmly within the historical blues roots of Chicago. On songs like "The Wolf Pack" (a Kid Thomas cover), it's easy to visualize the Blues Brothers careening around the city with their ragtag band, and over the album's twelve tracks, a mix of original songs and fresh interpretations of old blues hits, Whitfield sings like the devil that supposedly possessed Robert Johnson and 1950s teeny boppers. His voice slides easily from a low, ZZ Top-esque drawl on "Willow," the album opener, to a characteristic soulful growl that fits the aesthetic like a glove. Lines like "It's no sin, my baby, to lose control" (from "Willow") and "I'm gonna leave these no-good women alone" (from "I'm a Good Man") pour forth from his chest with earnestness and aplomb; you never doubt that Whitfield means every single word he says.

That said, at times the lyrics seemed anachronistic and a little silly--on "Angry Hands," he uses the phrase "human punching ball," the most forced rhyme with "wall" I've ever heard. And on the whole, the blues genre hasn't aged well lyrically, caught between the dipoles of modern party anthems' focus on modern sex and drugs and the thoughtful songcraft represented by what we call indie music, so it can be hard to take Whitfield seriously. Yes, he's a blast from the past, but that has to be taken in full, both good and bad.

Then again, Barrence Whitfield and the Savages are first and foremost a throbbing ball of stage energy from whence no meaning can or should be derived, and as such they're at their best when Whitfield is letting out barbaric shrieks and the band is following up with deft solos. Under the Savage Sky is a particularly excellent showcase for the saxophone work of Tom Quartulli, who slashes his way through instrumental breakdowns like a maniacal brass demon. His solo on "Angry Hands" stands out as a fiery mass of avant-garde wails, depicting the fury of the song far more effectively than the aforementioned inane lyrics. Quartulli also shines as he holds down the punk-skiffle beat of "Bad News Perfume" and echoes Whitfield on "Full Moon in the Daylight Sky."

Quartulli and Whitfield bring the retro blues-soul, but guitarist Peter Greenberg brings the punk edge that has defined his style since his days with Boston-based garage outfits DMZ and The Lyres. Though his riffing with the Savages remains based in the rock-a-billy roots of Under the Savage Sky's songs, he introduces a lo-fi fuzz to the music that's reminiscent of the 1960s garage scene that introduced distortion to the rock sounds of the day. He drives "The Claw," a take on the 1950s dance move craze with a decidedly more sinister name and sound, and his work on "Rock n' Roll Baby" sounds like Chuck Berry had a fuzzbox delivered to him via Delorean.

Greenberg's most impressive work on the album, though, is also the least bombastic-- "Adjunct Street," which takes a break from the harder-pushing tone that begins to grow stale by the time "Katy Didn't" and "Incarceration Casserole" come up on the second half of the album. "Adjunct Street," despite its unusual name, falls just as short as the rest of the songs do lyrically, dragged down by the cliché "folks, they just don't understand," but Greenberg's tasteful fills and tremulous tone that calls forth Dick Dale more than atone for any verbal sins. He works especially well with the rhythm section, bassist Phil Lenker and drummer Andy Jody, as the three build a quiet intensity to accompany Whitfield's pained rasps and Quartulli's camouflaged contributions. It should be noted that Lenker and Jody are rock-solid throughout the entire album, most notably on the fast-paced "Bad News Perfume" and strutting "The Wolf Pack."

Barrence Whitfield and the Savages aren't going to make you think--in fact, if you think too hard about their music your head will start spinning from the virtual time travel--but they will entertain you. They bring the ferocious energy of a punk band to the swaggering and toe-tapping soul-blues of Little Richard, and with hellacious saxophone work, tight riffs, and Whitfield's blistering vocals, they put forward a solid throwback effort on Under the Savage Sky.

You can catch Barrence Whitfield and the Savages on September 2nd at Schubas and September 3rd at Evanston's SPACE.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »


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