Reviewed by Justin Avery
Back in late 1950s America, the town of Bakersfield, California became home to a ‘new’ sound in country music, one snubbing its nose at the lush orchestral production wafting from Nashville. This music had a telecaster (or two) up front, aided and abetted by pedal steel and fiddle, all backed by a driving rhythm section that laid it down hard. In honky-tonk bars, bands like Buck Owens & The Buckaroos and Merle Haggard & The Strangers took a little bit of country swing, a little bit of rock’n’roll, roughed it up with some attitude, and the ‘Bakersfield Sound’ was born.
Clock forward a few generations and The Bakersfield Glee Club, emerging from the backstreet pubs of Fitzroy, have seized the mantle with both hands, running full pelt, balls out and amps ablaze, on their fifteen-track debut album, one that should cement their popularity in city and country town alike.
Like a fine thoroughbred, The Bakersfield Glee Club boasts an impressive pedigree, featuring members of local bands Redfish Bluegrass, Austin Floyd, Silver City Highway and Dirty York, and this inner-city, honky-tonk supergroup brings the full force of their formidable musical prowess to every song. While in the main a delicious menu of country covers (Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock, Robbie Fulks etc), the album also contains a few originals by singer/guitarist Darren Maxfield that sit seamlessly in the set. At every turn, the band steps up to the music and bring something new besides, showing tenderness and restraint one moment, then giving ample muscularity and drive when required.
Highlights include ‘Workin’ Man Blues’, which sees the band take to this Merle Haggard song with all the Nudie-Suited swagger of The Flying Burrito Brothers, the rhythm section (Justin Rudge on bass and Simon Edwards on drums) adding extra horsepower, while pedal steel howls off down the highway towards a distant horizon. Greg Field puts on a master-class of fiddle playing and shines out front on the Don Rich (Buck Owens’ long time sideman) penned ‘Cajun Fiddle’, a track that will soon have you lost in a joyous two-step.
Though the album often blisters along at breakneck speed, there’s ample time and space too for introspection, such as Willie Nelson’s sweet and low ‘Nightlife’, where pedal steel and fiddle dance each other to the end of love.
The mournful rock lullaby ‘Sleepwalk’ (Santo & Johnny Farina) is a perfect end to this Saturday night country dancehall album, as Seamus O’Sullivan’s pedal steel paints yet another achingly beautiful landscape, taking us deep into the night. It’s like a soundtrack to the final scene in a film: the camera pulls back from the slow-swaying couple to reveal they are alone on the dance floor, oblivious to all around them, lost in each other’s eyes.
But the band plays on.