Big Hat: Filling Big Shoes

ImageI’m always telling my friends about how freaky it is to be a pedal steel player – not because I’ve managed to figure out a way to play this confounded electric cheese slicer, but because I’ve ended up meeting and forging friendships with a wide range of musicians I would never have otherwise met. One of those musicians is Joshua Grange from Los Angeles, California, whose talents encompass the pedal steel among other various stringed instruments and keyboards. A few years ago he came to my hometown with Dwight Yoakam. A mutual friend, veteran LA musician Skip Edwards, introduced us on email. I went to the soundcheck to have a chat, and we ended up becoming friends and staying in touch.

Josh has since gone on to play with an impressive roster of renowned acts, the most recent being some gigs on steel and keys with Sheryl Crow’s band. Josh’s Twitter photos from these shows are really cool and insightful: hanging out backstage, doing soundcheck, setting up gear, hanging at a restaurant with the band, etc. In many of these pics you can see guitarists Peter Stroud and Audley Freed. Both of these guys have impressive resumes of their own, Stroud having played with Don Henley and Freed with the Black Crowes. Freed is fairly new on my radar and to Crow’s band as well, but I’ve long admired Stroud as Crow’s right-hand man on stage. Both are incredible pickers, with just the right mix of country and classic rock in their playing. So when I noticed Stroud’s Twitter posting of a new EP from a band involving him and Freed, I immediately clicked the iTunes link and downloaded the four tunes. And I’m glad I did.

The band is called Big Hat, and along with Stroud and Freed features country singer/songwriter Keith Gattis on lead vocals (whose songs have been covered by a wide range of artists from George Jones to Kid Rock), bassist Robert Kearns (from Cry of Love and Lynyrd Skynyrd), drummer Fred Eltringham (whose credits include Wallflowers, Dixie Chicks, and K.D. Lang), and Hammond organ legend Ike Stubblefield (whose live credits include Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart, among many others). It was recorded in Atlanta and consists of three songs penned by Gattis, Stroud, and Freed, and one written by Eddie Vedder and Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam.

The cover art is decidedly funky, with the band’s name super-imposed in a bold ‘70s-style font over a psychedelic top hat with the members’ names printed in the hatband. The band is no doubt aware of the top hat’s legacy in rock history, with its most notable bearers being Leon Russell and Tom Petty. Russell wore a top hat during Joe Cocker’s famous Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, and Petty incorporated one in the video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and in his live shows in the ’80s when he would open a treasure chest in a theatrical display and unveil the hat for the audience. Therefore, both the name and visual use of the “big hat” is appropriate to the nature and approach of the band. I’m surprised it hasn’t already been used.

The EP kicks off with “Delilah,” a song that successfully manages to create a hybrid of Street Survivors-era Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Band’s Brown Album. Gattis’ vocal is a mixture of George Jones and Levon Helm, which suits the subject matter of the lyric. The guy in the song gets involved with a hard-drinking bar chick. He wakes up hungover in a double-wide trailer “half-stoned,” when Delilah walks in “out of nowhere, wearing nothing but her shades and slip.” Delilah herself is like an updated, new millennium Anny from “The Weight.” But instead of abandoning Anny to crony around with Luke, Moses, and Chester, the guy in the song takes Delilah with her when he leaves town.

Having said all this, I don’t think this song was written to be lyrically dissected. It’s supposed to be a bit of a tongue-in-cheek redneck anthem and guitar showcase. The intro guitar riff is so fuzzy it’s almost into ‘80s metal territory without the big reverb. It’s confidently executed but is also a smokescreen because its heavy rock approach is quickly followed by a cleaner electric with an old Fender Brownface-era tremolo when the country-style verse kicks in. The drums, also heavy in the intro, lay back slightly and add the occasional double beat to match the old-timey feel of the tune. The Hammond and bass round out the punchy sound of the track with tasteful punctuation. The intro riff is repeated throughout the song, with a harmony guitar solo in the middle that is more Thin Lizzy than Allman Brothers. All of these contrasting elements are precisely what make this tune enjoyable.

Up next is “Feather in the Breeze,” a groove-laden piece full of overdriven Stratocaster goodness. I noticed in recent pics of Stroud and Freed that they’re both Strat-crazy these days, which is a relief from all the hipster Tele/Les Paul overload we’ve seen in recent years. Although ubiquitous in Blues, the Strat doesn’t see enough use in Rock these days. Stroud and Freed are changing that, thankfully. Lyrically the song celebrates the freedom of not having a “spotlight shining down on me,” which is fitting seeing that the members of Big Hat are often on big stages but in the shadows of the stars they back up. This song is a celebration of the autonomy this relative anonymity gives them. The guitar interlude in this song is unabashedly ‘80s in its majestic echo-drenched sound. Kearns’ prominent bass lines are channeling Entwistle with some Stax/Volt Duck Dunn touches as well.

The third song, “Light,” is southern Balladry at its best, with some “Kashmir” vibes thrown in for good measure. Stubblefield’s Hammond is magic on this track, sitting in just the right spot in mix while saying hello at just the right moments. You can hear his fingers slapping the keys during the solo, which adds a nice percussive effect.

The EP ends with a version of Pearl Jam’s “Supersonic,” originally recorded on that band’s 2009 album Backspacer. It’s a fast, heavy number given the southern rock treatment, complete with raunchy bottleneck guitar and wah pedal goodness. The band sounds like Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers in high gear, with a touch of Brit Rock in the vocals. The instrumental is a trade-off of analog-delay guitar riffs and overdriven Hammond, with the arrangement of this passage taking on a grunge-like sound reminiscent of the more creative elements of the grunge genre, a la Soundgarden.

The key to the distinctive sound on this EP as a whole is the cross-breeding of the players’ influences. Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Stroud and Freed are tapping into a wide array of sounds. In their tones and riffs you’re liable to hear Eddie Van Halen as much as you are Jimmy Page. This makes for an interesting palette of tones capable of producing a multitude of sonic colours and hues. Gattis’ vocal style benefits from the same musical background as Stroud and Freed. He can go from George Jones to Paul Rodgers at the drop of a dime. The same dynamic is no doubt at play with the rest of the musicians on this EP. What you have here is a comprehensive stew of ingredients that come together to make a unique taste. They wear the “big hat” of musical influences very well. I hope that the inevitable positive response to this initial offering will encourage this side project to become more of a consistent entity and release a full-length recording.

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