I first met Stolen Rhodes back in 2011 at the first Liberty Music Festival in Philadelphia. It took a few concentrated listens, but once I understood the influential battle cries of reviving a style ignored by popular music, I became quite interested in the band. I covered their second release, Falling Off The Edge, and based off of that initial meeting, and offering of recorded music, I become a fan of their sound. Flash-forward to the summer of 2014 as we once again conversed on the group’s progress. That resulting conversation included Stolen Rhodes handing me their latest disc, Slow Horse.
In their latest bio, the band mentions that despite their Jersey background, they embrace and uphold the days when Southern rock ruled the airwaves and stages of America. But they also tell you that they’ll do it in their unique way. Bassist and vocalist Matt Pillion says, “If folk music was turned up to 11 and included guitar solos, I think you would get into the ballpark of what we are.”
It is important to mention that while New Jersey’s location is far away from that country rock birthplace, it continues to be a popular country rock stomping ground for everyone from Poco to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Ever since I was a kid, the ghost rider imagery and romance of Southern rock have been fused into the sounds of many influential players here on the Jersey Shore.
The group takes their name from the very marauder experience from which they emerged. “We had a Fender Rhodes keyboard that was stolen from our singer earlier in his music career. Also, we might have commandeered a Rhodes ourselves from some undisclosed location (a possible poker deal gone bad?) along the way.” With a sound that borrows from the golden era of country rock, Stolen Rhodes gallop across the plains of The James Gang, Black Oak Arkansas, Jackyl, Blackberry Smoke and .38 Special.
Slow Horse contains five raw and ripping representations of everything you could ever imagine from a wild Saturday night. Produced by Dave Ivory, the record retains that special and organic set of components that comes from a seasoned production guru. Ivory is an avid fan that knows music can continue to be what it was back in the golden age of the 1970s, and this latest record is the proof of that forecast. Best known for his work with Patti LaBelle, The Roots, Bo Diddley and Molly Hatchet, Ivory is an influential navigator on Slow Horse.
Stolen Rhodes take the bull by the horns on the very first track. “Keeps Me Alive” blasts out of the gate with fathoms of country bends, high reaching bass and strummed electric gold. Pianos sparkle on top, hanging in mid-air like an eagle before swooping in and tucking under the perfectly tempered bass and drum work of Eric Skye and Dan Haase. Vocalist Kevin Cunningham has the combined power and range of Steve Perry and Patterson Hood. Guitars chug and soar across the vast soundscape of Route 66 salvation and the whirling, frontier town B3s that speed the plough of tent revival faith and light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Set-up for chorus work is immaculate, and the measured power of the song rises and descends in crescendos of desperado swagger at their absolute finest.
“Gone” pumps into the speakers with the furious imagery of barn dancing boot heels pounding into dusty floorboards. Guitars sizzle and barrel roll country licks, building into heavily vamped chords and riffs as the band jags left into a maelstrom of metal. Mixing the roaring, heavy feel of bands like Dio and Jackyl, Stolen Rhodes demonstrate that they just aren’t a bunch of make-believe vaqueros sitting on a fence strumming guitars. The middle-eight fretwork boils over in the frenetic vein of Warner Hodges (Jason And The Scorchers) as Cunningham builds his bridge as an orchestration, building back up to a massive mega power chorus. Stolen Rhodes have that rare mix of superlative vocals and harmonies that put them light years beyond the current crop of Americana cowboys.
“50 Miles To Richmond” is the band’s shot at the all-American ballad. Mid-tempo ballads are famous for missing the mark. There’s usually not enough compositional moxie to pull the train of mid-tempo cargo, and the song ends up bogged down in superficial baggage that should have been jettisoned at the first climb into the verse. On “50 Miles To Richmond,” acoustic guitars grab the attention span fast, skimming under shimmering swatches of organ splendor as the band holds at the dynamic marker, pacing and building with smart determination. By the time light, country skiffle drums click into the mix, the second verse setup has been achieved and put the song on a smooth and consistent pathway. Background vocals melt into organ support as the pre-chorus country twang jumps into the forefront before resurfacing for another stab of Larry Burnett (Firefall)-inspired lead work.
“Down In Flames” is a full speed tear into the psyche of the blue-collar American lifestyle. Hard-working folks, toiling for miniscule paychecks dissolve into all-night parties and the tough celebration of “everything for anything” mantra. Stolen Rhodes sound the battle cry of their lyrical charge with the line, “We all go down in flames/We turn the nighttime into day.” Guitars lift you up and carry you toward that deal with the devil down at the Crossroads. Vocal chants, bar chord brilliance and frenetic flurries of rhythmic thunder put “Down In Flames” way up on the top of the radio list.
The last song on this way too short disc is “Life Was Never Finer.” If you go berserk for down-home, hard-rocking bands like Blackberry Smoke and Ozark Mountain Daredevils, you’re probably going to get pulled over by the police for speeding when listening to this boisterous, rock and roll nugget. The rhythm work of Haase and Skye once again drive the pulse on this Boogie Woogie, backwoods revival. Combining that old school Willie Dixon soul with the modern edge of Fifth On The Floor, this is a song that will promote bar fights and babies. It’s a good time dive into the deep end of the “T For Texas” blues rock pool. Guitars upstroke into two-stepping Texarkana rock riffs and stick clicking rhythm ticks. “Life Was Never Finer” is a traditional American formula that has a tried and true effect on your musical sensibilities, and I know you won’t be disappointed. Just don’t call me for bail money.
Stolen Rhodes is a band that needs to be here for so many reasons. They bring the true honesty of old school music into keen focus, and they pack a wallop while doing it. Sure, they don’t have a cool beard like Abraham Lincoln, and they probably don’t wear skinny jeans and drink pumpkin lattes, but what they do is keep us exploring new avenues for inventive music. They put an important form of American music into the forefront of our minds, and that’s a great thing in this disintegrating industry of drivel.
For those of you who might want to see the band live, Stolen Rhodes will be at The Saint in Asbury Park on Nov. 8. For more information on Stolen Rhodes and their great new disc, Slow Horse, head over to their site at stolenrhodes.com.