The Austin-based band, The Gourds, has put out its eighth CD, and just when you think this ragtag clan of modern day redneck hippies may be pushing too hard to maintain the magic, they turn it up two notches. In "Heavy Ornamentals," everyone in the band puts in his best performance each in a somewhat new way.
Co-front man, Kev Russell, puts together his best four-punch yet with "Shake the Chandelier," "Pill Bug Blues," "Education Song," and the long-awaited CD appearance of the quintessential Gourds song "Hooky Junk." This doesn’t include two more traditional Russell songs, the more traditional-type Russell song "Burn the Honeysuckle," and a sort-of first, the slow-waltzy "Our Patriarch." Russell is prone to sometimes overuse references to food and blood, but he keeps those references to a modicum in this latest effort, which may be the band’s first commercially successful CD. Russell, who may have been able to give Jimmy Swaggart a run for his money as a southern evangelist had he not chosen the music path, preaches tolerance in “Those That Know – The Education Song.”
Jimmy Smith steps further out front, with more originals, passion, and charming eccentricity. The Gourds, known for their image-creating, story-lacking, stream of consciousness lyrics, change things up with a slightly different writing style on some Heavy Ornamental songs. Smith’s “My Roommate” is the best example of keeping the quirk while adding substance. Instead of a catchy hook line without equally compelling verses, “My Roommate” paints five vivid vignettes into a charming tale most can relate to on some level.
Although the Gourds often seem under-promoted and aimed slightly off course of the credit and respect they deserve, the plan seems to be coming together. The Gourds are still not afraid to include profanity and references to illegal drugs, not to shock, but because those words are what the songs are about – the image is real. The Gourds have a huge tightly-knit fan club that follows the band across the country through its Yahoo group Cucurbitaceae (the scientific name for the gourd family). Several of the group’s members came to Austin the first week of February to catch four Austin and one Houston show in five days. What the hard-core fans are finding at each show, are a growing number of younger fans who know the lyrics as well or better than they do. Someone said that I make Gourds’ fans sound like a cult.; Again, the image is real. However, the cult is growing and as long as the band intentionally goes its own way with its music, an ever growing cult-like following isn’t necessarily a bad thing – see Grateful Dead.
The Gourds, classified Americana by many, have once again changed their sound, making the band once again unclassifiable. Russell now plays electric guitar on many songs. Max Johnston plays lead with the lap steel. Johnston, who doesn’t have a lead vocal track on the CD, puts in his finest performance with some of the sweetest string licks on not only the lap steel but the mandolin, dobro, fiddle, banjo, and guitar.Claude Bernard brings it with not only the accordion, but a melodic keyboard. On previous CDs, many songs not suited to the accordion left Bernard’s impressive talents out of the mix. The new keyboard sound makes the frequent comparisons to Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers even more apparent. At one of the CD release shows at Austin’s Continental Club, a group of fans gathered in the back noting that the Gourds were rocking the joint with a newfound thunderous electric sound.
The band’s vibe reaches from its home state Texas to New York and Montana without missing a beat. Part of that reason may be the beat itself from drummer Keith Langford, who somehow keeps this group, seemingly headed in four different directions on an even keel.
Much too often categorized as “swampbilly”, the Gourds are much more and less than that. Their music has always been fun. Now it rocks as well.
Doc Fisher is a sometimes musician living in Austin, Texas, frequenting the bars and clubs that feature many of the SlackerCountry artists. He has a journalism degree from UT-Austin and lived in Austin during early 70s, returning again full-time in 2001.