The saxophone was right there at the beginning of rock and roll, from Bill Haley & His Comets to The Coasters to Junior Walker, and while it’s still seen out in the rock and roll wild, I’m always a little surprised when I hear a sax in a rock context. It could be the juxtaposition of the natural, unprocessed sound of saxophone going head-to-head against the electronically-enhanced sound of the electric guitar. Or it could be because many artists use the sax as a treat that only comes out for a solo. Whatever my issues are, the Dallas-based The 40 Acre Mule reminded me that the saxophone can rock with the fury of a guitar and amp.
And the 40 Acre Mule rock hard. From the album’s first moments to its final ones, the band just relentlessly oozes rock and roll energy. And it’s very much a group effort. The rhythm section of Robert Anderson (drums) and Tim Cooper (bass) are tight, pushing each song along with the relentlessness of the ticks of a clock. Chad Stockslager’s organ and piano cheer every song along. But the bulk of the energy comes from J. Isaiah Evans, the band’s singer/guitarist, lead guitarist John Pedigo, and baritone saxophonist Chris Evetts. Those three, in different ways, take impressive songs, all written by Evans, and make them exciting.
Let’s start with Evans’ voice. It’s more rock than blues, but it’s also capable of finding a soulful timbre. His best vocal is “Somethin’ Next to Nothin’,” which charmingly kicks off Side B of the album (a nice nod to the older generations who are the only ones buying music anymore). Evetts and Pedigo each work their own parts of the song, the rhythm section holding things down with a simple beat. Sax fades into guitar which fades back into sax, Evans bobbing and weaving between it all, a modern Frogger. But Evans doesn’t just make it to the other side of the road. His impassioned vocals push back, like a rock singer, but with much less angst and much more emotion.
“Shake Hands with the Devil” is pop rock, with Evetts and Pedigo working together on a huge hook. The song’s beat is practically danceable and Evans’ vocal delivers a sense of both fun and danger. Pedigo and Evetts trade solos as the band recedes, briefly, into the background. But the solos never take away from the momentum of the track, which says a lot about the musical gifts of both musicians.
And so the album goes, one song flowing perfectly into another. There’s not a misstep on the album. Even a song like “Hat in Hand,” which is essentially a 90s power ballad, is something special. Most bands performing it would sound like a Temple of the Dog cover band, but in the hands of The 40 Acre Mule, it’s exceptional, with hauntingly dark organ, tremolo-saturated guitar that sounds like it’s being played in slow motion, and Evans raw, honest vocals. This is a special band making exceptional music. Good Night and Good Luck is required listening.
The Review: 9.5/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Somethin’ Next to Nothin’
– You Better Run
– I’ll Be Around
– Shake Hands with the Devil
The Big Hit
– Shake Hands with the Devil
Review by Steven Ovadia