“Woah – how are we supposed to follow that? This guy is the real deal!” – the words of a well-known Americana act tasked with following Otis Gibbs’ live show at a Belfast festival in 2009.
Otis Gibbs was the real deal then and with his latest release he proves that he still is. His live show is a stripped down affair – just Otis and his acoustic guitar with which he squeezes everything he can out of every tune for the audience’s delight. His sixth album, Harder Than Hammered Hell does just what a good record should do – it gives a fuller, rounder more expanded experience with well worked instrumentation and production. It stands as an accompaniment to the live show rather than a rehash of it. On this record he re-employs the talents of guitarist Thomm Jutz along with the bass of Martin Fain and Paul Griffith on drums. His long-term partner, the established country artist Amy Lashley, provides delicate backing vocals which balance exquisitely with Otis’s gravelly and instantly recognisable tones.
Those familiar with his previous release, Joe Hill’s Ashes will be aware of Gibbs’ penchant for politically motivated material. This time round he gives a much more personal insight with songs of love and lament alongside comforting songs about not letting the bastards grind you down. Harder Than Hammered Hell fits instantly into his body of work as each song grows and grows and embeds itself in the listener’s mind. Yet again the quality of song writing is absolutely unquestionable. His songs are about the ordinary man and are filled with incident, relevance, sincerity and somehow just seem to be “the truth”.
The album opens with Never Enough, a song about confidence, optimism and giving it all you got. The lyrics portray the artist’s enviable self-assuredness. The layering of Jutz’s lead guitar melodies and Gibb’s acoustic guitar over the rhythm section give all the songs a solidity of foundation which in turn offers centre-stage to the wonderfully poetic lyricism and vocal style of this modern-day troubadour. “Sometimes I give it all I got, sometimes I give a little more” he sings. He sure does that.
The first few songs share a theme of the weary struggle against whatever challenge life presents. Made to Break builds into a beautifully swaggering, growling country rock slugger. Gibbs delivers the lines with a sneer and then his voice softens as he breaks into Broke and Restless where he pleads for the highway to roll on forever, to carry him to his Indiana homeland. The chorus introduces Lashley as she lends a cool, soulful country counterbalance to Gibbs’ rockier drawl. Like peanut butter and jelly – this just works!
Don’t Worry Kid is quite simply a big paternal hug of a song – an arm around the shoulder of each and every listener and anybody who has ever felt imperfect or doubtful. Again Gibbs and Lashley combine in a chorus which invites you into the embrace.
It seems unfair to single out any particular song on this album for special praise given that they all excel in their class but mention has to be given to Big Whiskers for its outstanding humour, style and story. Here Otis swaps his usual baseball cap for one of a more “10 gallon” variety as he could easily be singin’ this song to the boys in Folsom Prison given the Johnny Cash intonation in both music and vocal.
The story is a tall tale from Gibb’s childhood in Indiana about the ever elusive world record flathead catfish named Big Whiskers and Grandpa’s attempt to catch it. This is a comic caper in which ol’ Gramps refuses to shave until he proves that Big Whiskers exists. The imagery created here is pure comic genius when after decades of failed attempts to catch the fish Grandpa is so hairy even the local kids yell out “ZZ Top” as he passes. The story also includes the best goddamn convoluted fish bait recipe you’re ever likely to hear – it’s just got to work! If you want to find out how the story ends you’ll have to grab yourself a copy of the album.
The second half of the album returns us to vintage and classic Otis Gibbs territory. Christ Number 3 is another snarling, bleak and bluesy vision of false prophets living a lie and getting found out. The musicians here give a grounding blues rock edge to the track. This harder approach crops up again in Detroit Steel, a pure driving tune (quite literally) and Dear Miserywhich taunts misery, mediocrity and the self-righteous. “I bet you think you nearly broke me this time” – yeah right!
Highway 61 is tentatively revisited in the opening chords of the final track, Blues For MacKenzie, a brief lament for the grieving ‘Kenzie’ after a love departed too soon. The sentiment is heartfelt as Gibbs softly tells of the sobriety, sorrow and pity which engulfs the bereaved. This is such a tender way to finish a powerful album reawakening that same feeling instilled by Desolation Row as it brought Dylan’s 1965 classic LP to a close. The signature of a musical heavyweight.
Otis Gibbs has quite a story to tell. He has travelled far and wide, wandered with nomadic shepherds in Romania, bedded down with hobos, was a fifth grade yo-yo champion and once wrestled a bear (and lost). He has planted in excess of 7000 trees and it was while tree-planting in Indiana that his 70 year-old friend / co-worker referred to the ground as being “harder than hammered hell”. The metaphor stuck and perfectly describes the trials and tribulations recounted within this album.
Harder Than Hammered Hell is a perfectly succinct album. There are no fillers here and each song stands on its own merits both musically and lyrically. Gibbs’ song writing shines through and is beautifully complimented and developed further by the full band accompaniment. Amy Lashley’s cameo appearances are gems just waiting to be discovered as the record rolls along. This album is another fine milestone on the long road of Otis’s career where he sings all the truth that is fit to sing. It is available directly from Otis & Amy’s Wannamaker Record Company.
Finally, just a piece of advice – This is one guy you don’t want to miss if he is playing anywhere near your town. Treat yourself and go see The Real Deal.
Review by: Craig Walker
Full Album Preview
Otis Gibbs is making an extensive tour of the UK which includes:
Open House Belfast Presents…
The John Hewitt Bar
Sunday 24th June 2pm (afternoon show)
Tickets are £10 online or £12.50 on the door
For all the other dates please visit: http://otisgibbs.com/tour-dates/