Black Diamond Heavies
Playing Feb. 19 at the Basement
To most, the blues are an outmoded art form, characterized by hackneyed three-chord riffs with a well-known formula and selections from a standard canon ("Mannish Boy," "Hoochie Coochie Man," etc.). Why else are blues jam nights at local bars more prevalent than, say, heavy metal jam nights, or bebop jam nights?
That's not a condemnation. Just don't expect to find the Black Diamond Heavies trolling the clubs, looking for a place to plug in and play with the Stevie Ray wannabes. Their style of blues is at once more progressive and more tradition-conscious than most of their counterparts, eschewing the clichés that have become synonymous with the idiom.
Perhaps it has to do with upbringing. Mark Holder, the rotund, charismatic singer-guitarist for the Heavies, was raised in the tiny hamlet of Birchwood, 50 miles north of Chattanooga. As a child, Holder picked tobacco and the guitar, and found his love for music in part through church. The spirit moved him then, just like being onstage does now. Church was a place, Holder says, where the impulse was either to let something out, or to let something in a communion, of sorts, that converted easily to his love for the blues. Joined by Texas native (and fellow ex-gospel musician) John Wesley Myers, Holder continued his sojourn, playing the blues with something personal at stake.
Holder sometimes treats performances like church revivals, at others times like exorcisms. Sitting onstage with his guitar propped on his gut, he picks the bass notes with his thumb while howling about what sounds like a lifetime's worth of trouble and ecstasy. Meanwhile, the rest of the bandkeyboardist and singer Myers and drummer Van Campbellflail away in the spirit of blues greats (John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters) and great proto-punks (the Stooges and the Velvet Underground).
Holder considers the Black Diamond Heaviesand the East Nashville scene in generala reaction to what's happening on Music Row. He admits that his band's blues revivalist style, along with the absence of a bassist from their ranks, guarantees that they aren't likely to be playing showcases at the Wildhorse anytime soon. Not that they, judging by the music on their six-song EP You Damn Right, care for such things anyway.
The Heavies' disc, which they put out themselves, was recorded at Church Street Sound in Murfreesboro, but you couldn't tell that by listening to the songs. The guitars are awash in reverb, and are sometimes barely distinguishable from Holder's anguished yelps; the album sounds less like a studio creation than what you'd hear at one of the band's shows. Campbell's drumming is a study in what John Bonham might've done had Led Zeppelin stuck to their bluesier inclinations. And Myers, whose gruff singing voice is a tonal scrap yard to Holder's new car lot, compliments the big guy's vocals amiably.
Perhaps what's most remarkable about You Damn Right (if not about the Heavies themselves) is how the record honors the group's influences without pandering to them. The traditional blues number "Hambone," which has as much sex and violence in it as any thuggish rap, could be the band's anthem. Their own numbers, particularly mid-tempo songs like "No Doctor," are rich in grooves and pockets of rhythm. Maybe best of all, the Heavies aren't afraid of teasing out a note, a phrase or a cymbal crash, maybe to their audience's patience, if not their own.
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