Every once in a while, a band comes along that plays as if it was born of the ethers exhaled by John Fogerty as he belted out “Traveling Band,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s musical ode to fellow performing musicians who thrive on playing live. One listen to the five live songs on Shinebox, a brand-new compilation of 12 tunes by the Gourds, and you’ll realize that the quintet from Austin, Texas is such a band. Sure, the band has four studio albums, and there’s not a bad one in the bunch, but even live recordings are limited in their ability to capture the magic of a group like the Gourds, which can only be truly experienced in a barroom full of down-home music lovers, sweating, heaving, smiling, and hanging on every note.
Fortunately, the Gourds have recognized that Missoula is a town that appreciates good live music and have decided to grace the Garden City with a return engagement. Having torn up the Blue Heron with a smoking Valentine’s Day appearance earlier this year, the Gourds will showcase their wares à la Shinebox (and so much more) on Thursday, Sept. 13 and Saturday, Sept. 15 (see “8 Days A Week” for details).
Just like the band itself, Shinebox is at times rockin’, always fun, and often silly—a trait that shines through on the band’s cover versions of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice.” If you’ve heard the latter—and chances are you have, since it’s become the band’s most well-recognized tune—you can see that the Gourds don’t take themselves too seriously. The result, on Shinebox and live, is that the Gourds come across as a five-headed party on wheels. The band’s approach to music and to life is well evidenced by their choice to cover Nils Lofgren’s “Everybody’s Missing the Sun:”
“Everybody’s missing the sun,” sing the Gourds’ main vocalists, Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith. “Everybody’s sleeping in the afternoon. How can you have any fun when everybody’s missing the sun.”
Hmm, I wonder why all those afternoon naps. Maybe everybody was, well, partying into the wee hours of the morning, playing in or listening to the band at the bar, or just jamming around the living room.
If you saw their earlier show in Missoula, you know that the Gourds, like most bands, are prone to becoming energized and inspired by a room full of appreciative fans. At that show, a sold-out Blue Heron was infused with the sort of vibe that emanates from a band and audience that are all grooving on the same feel-good wavelength. If you could peel your eyes off the band long enough to look around the room, you were greeted with smiles wherever your eyes fell.
(Sick as a dog, but knowing that show was promised to be good, I dragged myself down to the Blue Heron. Now, it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the show healed me like some high-class televangelist. Yet it did get me up and shaking my booty a bit when my sorry ass really should have been in bed.)
While the Gourds clearly thrive in the presence of an adoring audience, you get the sense that the they are capable of having a great time with just the five of them jamming out and honing their high energy, mostly acoustic craft. Russell bears the brunt of the singing duty, and also plays guitar and mandolin. Smith belongs to that rare breed of bass players who can sing lead, and sing well, while holding down a solid bottom end. Claude Bernard plays accordion, guitar, and organ. Former Uncle Tupelo and Wilco multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston plays just about everything, including fiddle, banjo, guitar, and slide guitar. The percussion is handled by Keith Langford, who, like Bernard and Johnston, also helps to hold down the backing vocals. An earlier version of Shinebox was originally released in 1998 as Gogitchyershinebox. The band added five songs to the seven that made their way on the original version. In addition to paying tribute to Bowie, Snoop Dogg and Lofgren, the band mixes in covers of Townes Van Zandt’s “Two Girls” and Billy Joe Shaver’s “Omaha.” The album also features three traditionals—“Dooley”, “Jones oh Jones”, and “I’m Troubled”—and four original Gourds’ tunes.
The songs on Shinebox display the versatility of the Gourds. Their version of “Gin and Juice” is an upbeat boot-stomper, while they lay back a little more on covers of “Everybody’s Missing the Sun,” “Ziggy Stardust,” and “Two Girls.”
The true Gourds sound—a high-energy brand of bluegrass that just might whip concert goers into a moshing frenzy—is revealed on live tracks such as Russell’s “Lament” and Smith’s “Trampled by the Sun” and “Plaid Coat.”
Some hardcore Gourds fans have pointed out that the band stayed away from including any of its better known original songs in selecting tunes for Shinebox. Sure, I wouldn’t have minded if they’d have included a gem from their Ghosts of Hallelujah album such as “Fine Leather Truck,” “Gangsta Lean,” or “Grievin’ and Smokin,’” but they didn’t, and that doesn’t make the collection any less enjoyable.
What it does is to support the notion that Shinebox is less a stand-alone album than a window into the stranger and sillier side of the Gourds. Certainly no substitute for the Gourds’ studio albums or their excellent live shows, Shinebox is still a fine addition to the collection of any Gourds fan.