The early ’70s were probably the most fertile period for guitar rock, as psychedelic music faded, and the guitarists who honed their licks playing it switched to Southern rock, jam bands, and blues rock – all of which enjoyed their golden age. The template for many of the most successful groups mimicked the Faces and the Rolling Stones: two good guitarists, one of them playing electric slide, a strong rhythm section, and a charismatic singer. Nothing fancy, no harmonies, few slow songs, just grind it out and rock. The formula still persists with bands like the Black Crowes and Government Mule, and local rockers Boxcar Chief have dialed back the clock likewise in their debut album, Vagabond, with good results.
Brian Gaines (vocals, slide guitar), Scott Anderson (bass), Sean Rhead (drums), and David Berry (guitar) play 11 of Gaines’ originals and a cover, with guest keyboards on a few; it is mostly turn-up-the-knobs power guitar rock, though there are some efforts to go in a jazzier direction. On “Black River,” the opener, the listener gets a taste of the gut-level slide power chords they remember from the old Led Zeppelin albums, and Gaines’ vocal, though somewhat buried in the mix, is a decent approximation of the Crowes’ Chris Robinson. In fact, on its better rockers – especially the tracks with added keys – the Chiefs sound just like the Crowes. Never more so than on “Always,” which clones the vibe of the Crowes track “Gone,” from the great Amorica album.
“So Low” stands out with more dynamics than some of the other high octane tracks and does a fine job of building from calm to storm as Gaines sings, “Can’t you see the real truth inside of me/ Hazy times got a hold of me.” The only cover is a good choice, “Steady Rollin’ Man,” a solid Robert Johnson blues-rocker given a funky-chunky beat while both guitarists trade solo statements. Things are slowed down on “Start Again” as shimmering chords establish a somber mood beneath Gaines’ vocal, “Trapped in these days/ They don’t seem to end/ I hurry up and go to sleep/ Just to start all over again.” It’s back to grind-it-out bombast for disc highlight “Bone Dry Creek.” Pounding tom tom shots by Rhead usher in the dual guitar hook; this is clearly the Chief’s specialty and sure, the vocals are almost drowned out in spots by the guitars, but it rocks like hell and besides, who can make out the words to the Stones’ classic “Exile on Main Street,” which is the grandpa of this kind of tune? “Wandering Eye” is an effort at a mid-tempo power ballad, and despite it stretching Gaines’ vocal range past its limits, it gives the band a chance to fill the softer moments with some jazzy bridges.
Vagabond will find an audience among those who like their guitars plugged in, but aren’t into either pure blues or loud, hard metallic stuff. In the early ’70s this music was on top of the world, and Boxcar Chief make a good case for why that was the case.