Sunday, 28 August 2016

Strikes - Blackfoot

Provenance: This one's a bit murky, but I'm fairly certain I bought this due to Warrant's cover of 'Train, Train'. It wasn't for the awesome sleeve art.

Review: Here's a weird one; quite often, bands of a certain vintage go through many incarnations. Increasingly it seems that you only need one or two original members (Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Y&T, Guns N' Roses) to keep the flame held aloft, with the expectation that a decent number of fans will accept a degree of rock 'n' roll wastage as time ticks by.

So what to make of Blackfoot, who currently boast zero original members? And we're not even talking about a lineup that features any members from a 'classic' era - hell, current Blackfoot look a bit like they still jam Papa Roach covers in the drummer's garage. Here's the kicker - original guitarist and frontman Ricky Medlocke, who plies his trade these days in another substitute-heavy band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, still lurks in the background, acting as a Southern rock svengali to his be-goateed and be-mohawked charges. But can it still really be called Blackfoot?

Fortunately we're on more solid ground with Strikes, released in 1979. Blackfoot's third album, it still featured the 'classic' (that word again) lineup of Medlocke, Jackson Spires (drums), Charlie Hargrett (guitar) and Greg T Walker (bass). So named because Spires, Medlock and Walker all shared a First Nations heritage, Blackfoot took the blues-rock template of Free and Bad Company and imbued it with a degree of soul raunch, courtesy of Medlocke's soulful singing.

In fact, Medlocke's vocals are the standout event in Strikes - that, and the ability to craft punchy, catchy rock, the kind that's suited to a long drive with the windows down. Of the two covers on the album, Spirit's already excellent 'I Got A Line On You' is slowed down, toughened up and deep fried. The other one is a waste of time - Free's 'Wishing Well' is a perfectly good song, and Blackfoot demonstrate they can play it so competently that it's almost redundant. Yes, it plays to all collective strengths, but when the end result is virtually a xerox of the original, what's the point?

The originals are where the real mustard is on this album. 'Road Fever' is a decent mid-tempo opener, but it really catches light at 'Left Turn On A Red Light' - the subtler connotations of which were not revealed to me until I drove around the USA and got in a crash on the second day of my car rental. It feels like it's brooding, building, growing into a full-blown widescreen epic, so it's surprising to see it's a shade over four and a half minutes.

'Pay My Dues' is another solid fist-clencher, after which Blackfoot seem to have their head turned by the FM radio market with both 'Baby Blue' and 'Run And Hide' (which bookend the redundant 'Wishing Well'). I've got nothing against bands striving for a commercial sound - I like Foreigner, for goodness' sake - and although these are tight and hooky, they contain no surprises. Were it not for Medlocke's superlative singing, they'd be pleasantly anonymous. Fortunately, things get back on track (pun unintended) with 'Train, Train', which curiously has its harmonica intro listed separately on the running order. It's cool, though, as its played by the song's writer, Shorty Medlocke, granddad of Ricky (and later covered both by LA glamsters Warrant and Dolly Parton). It chugs along atop its crunchy gutbucket guitar riff and features the lyric 'Well, leavin' here, I'm just a raggedy hobo' so it was always going to score highly from me.

Last up is 'Highway Song'. Now, I don't know whether I should be laying the blame at the feet of the Allman Brothers for their interminable noodling on Eat A Peach, Lynyrd Skynyrd for pub bore favourite 'Free Bird', or whether I need to reach back further to the jam bands of the 1960s, but somewhere along the line it appears that Southern rock bands became infected with a notion that they all had to write a big, long song that starts quietly, picks up the pace and ends with a guitar wig-out. (However, in terms of Southern rock, 'Free Bird' almost seems like the ur-text for this nonsense.) 'Highway Song' is not a particularly bad song, and it contains the blueprints for something that could've been genuinely good - but to my 21st century ears it sounds stale. I imagine it probably stunk a bit even in 1979.

I sense I come across as a tad harsh about Strikes, an album I sincerely enjoy and listen to frequently. Ricky Medlocke is such a factor that he alone elevates much of the material. However, if you are a member of a Southern rock band, or are thinking of forming one, please heed this call from me; stop churning out these naked, unabashed attempts to write your own 'Free Bird'. I don't know, maybe it's part of the Faustian pact Southern rock bands make when they go eat some BBQ chicken wings at a crossroads or whatever, and in return for their smokin' guitar tones and hollerin' vocals, they agree to write at least one ultra-dull piece of shit 'Free Bird' tribute. Resist the urge. Play a cover song. Veer off into techno. Make a cup of tea. But I beseech you, no more 'Free Bird'.

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