Real Ponchos – To the Dusty World
Independent – 2017
Although the Grateful Dead had to effectively call it a day upon leader Jerry Garcia’s passing in 1995, a steady (and continuing) flow of reissues, live releases, spin-offs, core member reunions and tribute projects, like 2016’s sprawling Day of the Dead box set, have ensured the band’s catalogue and legacy have remained highly visible. Consequently, a new generation of Deadheads has emerged, the legendary band’s influence subliminally or by design permeating the music of scores of young bands, including Vancouver’s ‘psychedelic country soul’ outfit, Real Ponchos. By filtering the essence of (especially) early-to-mid-70s Dead (improvisational soloing intact) through earthy country twang and folk-rock stylings, the four-piece has absolutely knocked it out of the park with their sophomore album, To the Dusty World.
Following 2013’s promising eponymous debut EP and the following year’s full-length offering, Since I Let You Go, Real Ponchos have truly crystallised their Dead-led sound on this majestic new release. Every element that made the band so impressive out of the starting blocks has been honed to near-perfection here, for a cinematic and emotional 42-minute journey across just seven tracks, two of which are instrumentals.
One of the many qualities of their take on roots-rock is that the band is blessed with two fine, though contrasting singer-guitarists. Ben Arsenault (largely responsible for the fluent, slow-burning lead guitar solos) possesses a nasal country voice, stylistically close to Jay Farrar, yet with the timbre of Lefty Frizzell, whereas Emile Scott boasts a smoother vocal delivery that is loaded with soul. They are both greatly effective and complement each other well.
Arsenault launches proceedings with No Show, beginning for all the world like a jangly Real Estate intro until his cracked voice enters with the scene-setting lyric:
Woke up this morning at the side of the road / Holes in my shoes / I’ve been runnin’ so long
With the introduction of a silky pedal steel from guest contributor Marc Jenkins (Roger Dean Young & the Tin Sea, Jon & Roy) and lush harmony vocals, we are in alt. country territory for six minutes of melancholy bliss.
The strident Cherchez Les Femmes is up next, with Scott on lead vocal. The lyrics appear to be a contemplation on the pressures of big city life, especially during the grey, wet, miserable winter months here on the West Coast, and a desire to break away from it to a simpler rural existence:
It’s about time I gambled / Navigate some ancient clearing
Scott again takes vocals on the extraordinary Flatline Rose, a seven minute country heartbreaker. In two parts, the first section is vintage alt. country balladry, seemingly ending at the 3:15 mark, but it gives way to a brief bridge of distant chatter and traffic noise. Then the gorgeous second movement takes it home in a hazy wash of harmonies and a lengthy, crystalline guitar solo atop a bed of woozy pedal steel, electric piano from guest Tyson Naylor (Frazey Ford, Dan Mangan) and Real Ponchos’ effortless-sounding, rock solid rhythm section of drummer Emlyn Scherk and bassist Michael Wagler. It is a simply wonderful composition.
To the Dusty World’s pivot is a soft, meandering guitar instrumental, aptly entitled Passing Through. Curiously, it was issued as a single in 2016, but here it paves the way for Arsenault’s second vocal showcase, Still the Same Fool. Up to this point on the album, sweat has not even been remotely broken in terms of song tempo, and so it continues with this aching ballad, keeping the mood downbeat and reflective.
At almost ten minutes in length and also helmed by Arsenault, the album’s penultimate song, Stillness, is a spacey country-rock epic amply illustrating both the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic influence and Real Ponchos’ full range of compositional and performance chops. Atmospheric and haunting, but also gently funky, it is a thrilling jam and as heavy as the band gets throughout. With Arsenault’s guitar winding out a snaking solo for close to four minutes as the track builds to a crescendo, surely Stillness will conclude their live shows for the foreseeable future…?
The final five-and-a-half minutes of To the Dusty World are occupied by the pensive instrumental title track, which ends with a brief, jarring squall of noise totally at odds with all that has come before. It is an unusual, but highly effective way to bring this beautiful album to an elegant conclusion, and further evidence of the band’s deep respect of Jerry Garcia’s sonic adventurers.
Indeed, the spirit of the Grateful Dead lives on in wonderful music like this, but it is not by any means to say that Real Ponchos do not have their own very cool thing going on. They certainly do and are producing contemporary Canadian indie roots music at its grandest, as epic as photographer Tayu Hayward’s awe-inspiring landscapes that have graced each Real Ponchos release to date.
Photo Credit: Tayu Hayward