Favorite Tracks: “Ways and Means,” “Rattle Can,” “No Tellin’ When,” “Sad Songs”
I’m not sure whether or not the post-COVID era of music is going to see a prominent uptick in traditional blues music, but God knows the genre has seen America’s rise over the last 150 years and if we’re lucky it’ll be the soundtrack of its fall—that mainstream music’s most prominent pop blues act over the last decade, The Black Keys, recently returned to the slow-burn guitar jams that made them a sensation in the first place is probably coincidence, but hopefully not. A sound pioneered by black people to tell the stories of the disenfranchised, the working class, and the poor, absolutely deserves to see a mainstream reintroduction, particularly after a year that saw the rich get richer and prominent cries for change from minority groups across the country. We need authentic songs for revolution and change.
You could argue that the Reverend Peyton has been readying himself for this revolution his whole life… he’s a music lifer who has had a chance to talk to or play with more blues legends than you could possibly fathom, both those you know by name and those still relegated to the annals of history. And importantly, DANCE SONGS FOR HARD TIMES, a spiritual sequel in some ways to his last album, POOR UNTIL PAYDAY, feels like the right release at the right time to pick up the mantel for being one (if he isn’t already) of blues’ great superstars. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bad album in the larger Big Damn Band catalogue, but even by his own lofty bar both his recent run of records, and especially the Vance Powell-produced latest, truly capture this current moment better than almost any other artist has or could.
As always, Petyon’s musical sensibilities on DANCE SONGS FOR HARD TIMES carry that rare jukebox accessibility—immediate choruses, powerful backing vocals, blazing guitar work, and a more muscular, at times psychier, sound than they’ve displayed in recent past. The band has an acute, workmanlike understanding of how we as listeners want to use our hands, voices, and bodies to engage with music (playing in small clubs for nearly 20 years will do that). Powell gives a mysterious flair to these songs with smart production choices that diversify the record quite a bit; lead single, “Ways and Means,” among the year’s best songs, is a groovy, neon-lit bar jam, while the distant quarantine ballad “No Tellin’ When” is effectively dark, sparse, and distant. Even some of the more classical barnburner dancefloor numbers that the trio excel at, like the hand jive-ready jam “Too Cool to Dance ” or the ruckus throwdown “Rattle Can,” feel somehow more explosive this go around. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band often have benefited from a unique three-piece sound that always feels fresh, but on DANCE SONGS FOR HARD TIMES those components feel particularly more emboldened than usual, as full-bodied a sound as they’ve ever conjured top-to-bottom.
And like POOR UNTIL PAYDAY, Petyon continues to sing about blue collar and working class problems with vigor. As homelessness and wage inequality rise, a line like “Bills keep coming like a freight train running” (“Nothing’s Easy but You and Me”) or the entire sentiment of “Crime to Be Poor” cut a bit deeper than at any other time in the band’s career. These songs are perfect for the dancefloor, but they’d be equally fine as rallying cries in the streets. The throughline, as always, is the community, and that notion feels essential now; watch a Big Damn Band music video, engage with them on social media, or see them in concert (you won’t regret it), and you’ll see a band that don’t just sing about the problems poor people are facing, but understand and interact with those people in a meaningful way. The community that they’ve created, and the large acceptance that music has the power to get people through these hard times, is built into the Big Damn Band’s lifeblood. Seeing it put to record in such a thrilling way is beyond rewarding, and it makes DANCE SONGS FOR HARD TIMES perhaps their best yet. Let us hope that this is the start of a revolution.