The Aces (USA)
No One Rides For Free
©El Toro Records 2009
Formed in 2000, The Aces have attitude and a different idea of how to play Blues. They reduce the Blues to pounding riffs and a distorted wall of sound topped by wailing harp. They were among the first to absorb and recast the drone riff-based Hill Country Blues style, and The Aces do that their own way.
They write their own songs (they do very few covers). They have their own slicked back greased hair in a wind tunnel look attached to a permanent sneer and a pushy stage presence. Those that might think of punk trance blues as something endlessly repeating a melodic line are in for a rhythmic pounding when the Aces get on stage.
The Aces start with Mike "Junk Johnson" Gutsch on drums with a unique style of simple drumming. His drums are arranged differently than other drummers. The cymbals are way low. The result with the Aces is a relentless pounding style that very much works right on the basic riff being played--and right into your skull. The rhythm guitarist who really plays bass for the Aces --sort of like Brewer Phillips used to do for Hound Dog Taylor. He uses a low toned Telecaster for this like Brewer did.
Derek Irving had and has that slick guitar-star-on-stage-with-a-sharp-suit persona and a passel of custom guitars. Girls smile at Derek. Derek smiles back. Derek has the stage front of the guitar hero down pat. He actually plays a lot of very old time traditional blues licks in a slick lead guitar manner. He pounds you while looking like its sparkle show time.
Fronting all this is six foot two Sky O’Banion, with his out thrust jaw and slick blonde pompadour. Sky dares you not to like it. His tall massive stage presence is almost patented “chip on the shoulder” stuff. Sky writes or maybe improvises all the song lyrics. It’s hard to tell, as he more than most harp players prefers to sing a lot through his harp mic. Sometimes he’ll sing through both the harp mic and the house mic at the same time. When you do catch the words it’s a stream of consciousness about very bluesy topics like growing up poor and living out on farm roads and how bad women are and other fine stuff. Sometimes it seems to be Jack Kerouac poetry.
It’s really good to see The Aces in control of their own destiny. Nobody sounds like them, and nobody has their whole conception of the blues. It’s blues all the way; it just has an edge and focus that isn’t like bar bands. They aren’t generic. - Rolf Olmsted, Sonoma Tunes.
Hands down, this is simply the best pure blues album I’ve heard this year – the explosive sound of The Aces, hailing from Santa Rosa, California, but finding a home for “No One Rides For Free” on the small Spanish label, El Toro Records, based at Pineda, near Barcelona.
It’s probably the rawest, most energetic blues since the late, great Lester Butler and his band, The Red Devils, burst out of LA in the early 1990s’ – The Aces work on some of the same templates – blasting harmonica, down home guitar and the same driving rhythms, but with The Aces powered by low-tuned second guitar as opposed to a conventional bass player.
The band comprise the imposing figure of Sky O’Banion on lead vocals and harmonica, Derek Irving (lead guitar and sitar) and Mike Gutsch (drums), with the rhythm guitar work shared on the ten tracks between Bob Welsh and Chris Anderson – together they create an intense wall of sound that grabs you from the start and doesn’t let go!
The opening “You’re Gonna Lose” shows what they are all about – a fabulous harmonica intro before the band lock into a killer groove, before O’Banion’s tough vocals kick in – often through his harmonica microphone, and biting guitar solo from Derek Irving, a player definitely from the ‘less is more’ school, delivering traditional guitar lines.
The pace is kept up on the following “Stole Something From Me”, leading into the menacing “Shed Some Light On Me” – very Red Devils for me, with Sky O’Banion’s vocal almost sounding like a demented preacher – superb stuff indeed!
“Knee Deep In Mud” slows things down a little – a sort of lazy shuffle that highlights Mike Gutsch’s drumming, before the Sonny Boy Williamson-flavoured “Drinkin Song”, with O’Bannion’s acoustic harmonica work giving it that classic feel. The slide-driven “Need Your Lovin’” sees the band take the tempo up again, before the stomping “Down In The Cave”, which sees Derek Irving on electric sitar.
Elsewhere “Mr Highway Man” rides on an almost funky guitar groove with more tremendous harmonica; “House On The Hill” is another killer fast shuffle – the guitars on this are just tremendous – with the closing “Kanka Kanka” being in the same vein, with salvos of just dynamite harmonica work.
Make no mistake, from the opening of track one to the close of track ten, this is just superb stuff – let’s hope the boys make it over to the UK next year some time – whether it be festivals or clubs, you just know they will be the real deal – a five star recommendation from me!
Blues In The Northwest, UK