Ruben Dobbs (guitars, vocals) and Joey Mitchell (acoustic bass, kick drum) are two of the hardest working musicians in Naptown and they continue to let it all hang out on their newest album triumph, “Land.” This album couldn’t have been better named. It clearly exhibits the next phase in the evolution of a band kicking down the door with every entrance they make. Dobbs and Mitchell have bought in so heavily to their music and scene, they are already ambassadors of the church of Swampcandy (just in case you’re wondering, Dobbs is ordained as a priest). Considering they’ve already been singing the gospel of Swampcandy for years, it only makes sense to take the natural progression, declaring their own territory: “Swampcandyland.”
“Bottle Rocket” kicks things off, channeling that fine Robert Johnson boogie-woogie swing that Dobbs has perfected. And as we’ve come to expect, the Delta Blues bravado gives way to a beautiful change of pace chorus accented with electric guitar and the affirming lyrics: “We can run faster than the rain.” Ruben’s hard cutting polyrhythmic riffs roll euphorically with Mitchell’s steady hand on upright bass. It’s a beautiful blend of hard-pumping roots rock and grunge psychedelia.
“If I Die With My Eyes Open,” keeps the dynamic energy flowing. Chords are everywhere, in your face, and it’s a complete joy to hear the boys channeling their chaos into refined music magic. Dobbs breaks through from the beginning emphatically stating, “You can find me on the mountain.” If John Lennon on “Tomorrow Never Knows” wanted to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop, then Dobbs sounds like a bourbon drinking mountain man scaring off some bears as he commandingly sings, “If I die with my eyes open, there might finally be a way.”
Joey and Ruben are so locked-in at this point that the absence of supplemental percussion or whatever symphony of instruments other bands need doesn’t even matter. There’s a solid beat and step to every song that fills the room. As we’ve seen from live performances, Joey isn’t afraid to pick up the bow to add some extra impact to sustaining vocal notes.
“Heard Somebody,” keeps up the pace further engraining you with the fact that the only way to experience Swampcandy is to go all in or nothing at all. “I asked for whiskey, she gave me gasoline.” There is no lie to this lyric and there is no lie to this music. It’s a quick song like many of them but not easily forgotten with some added tambourine excitement.
One of my personal favorite live tunes, “Drink Whiskey With Me,” finds its rightful spot on the album. The boys get their burlesque groove on with horns to spice up this jazzy, mad-cat romp with Voodoo Pharmacology's Kerra Holtgren. Her sultry accompanying vocals are a fine touch. Mid-way through, Ruben goes straight-up Tom Waits in a most delightful way. This song could easily find its way to television or Hollywood or maybe just some French carnival sideshow. Either way, the music is beautifully done; it’s wonderful to hear it so well produced and recorded. And what better way to bring the song to a close than with Ruben’s wild and haunting laugh? This song is great for so many occasions, whether it’s New Year’s Eve or Halloween.
“Baseball Bats,” is a fun and funky steel pedal stomp that keeps the edge: “Gonna have to dig twenty feet down, if they ever hope to find you.” Speaking to the revelations of the church of Swampcandy, there’s even a choir (similar to the one featured in “If I Die With My Eyes Open” with Meg Murray and Ben Grant). “Roll Jordan Roll” keeps the choir and sermon rolling with: “I wish I was in jubilee.” It’s an otherworldly sounding tune where Joey’s precision on bass shines.
Dobbs returns to channeling his inner Tom Waits on “Tore My Heart Like A Tiger,” the only song on the album featuring the distinct precise of a drum kit. But the slapping and tapping of the guitar and bass are still present as ever. The song plays like a miniature theatrical piece where Dobbs plays the part convincingly of several people. Like so much of their music, you know never know where they’re going to take you and this song might display it better than any. I’ve said it before when it comes to some of our other fine Naptown musicians and I’ll say it here again. Lots of musicians talk about being able to do multiple musical styles but very few truly pull it off. Very few can have a multiple personality conservation set to the backdrop of rockin’ blues roots music.
“Bastard Than I Am,” stays true to the core blues roots and the gem “Positive Drinking,” adds some much needed soul to the madness, featuring some of the most poignant lyrics: “The sound of tears falling down your face, I’m the one you’ll never replace.” Nice to see there’s a somber side to go along with the rough around the edges exterior.
The album hits its closing stride with a strong run featuring battle cries a-plenty and cool instrumental breakdowns in “Hey Hey” and “Love in My Veins.” “Good Day” keeps the enthusiastic Swampcandy hymns rolling along into the album closer and pseudo-title track: “Swampcandyland,” complete with the promise of “it’s gonna get weird.”
There is no denying that Ruben Dobbs and Joey Mitchell can do "weird" with the best of them, but they do it with a style and grace that is so exhilarating you gladly allow yourself to get pulled along with them. The gospel of “Swampcandyland” continues on in a pub near you. The boys have just returned from another multi-week adventure in the United Kingdom and are gearing up for FloydFest in Floyd, Virgina this weekend. Grab a whiskey and watch ‘em practice what they preach. Cheers!
Part 2: SWAMPCANDY with SKRIBE a FLOYDFEST 2015
If Wednesday night’s performance was the party starter, then Thursday night kept the party rolling. The band played the Speakeasy Stage around 11pm at a time when lots of people we just really starting to get fired up and excited for the weekend. Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass was on one stage and Leftover Salmon on another, but Swampcandy was bringing something entirely different to the plate: low down, dirty nasty blues. It was easy to tell that they were in the right place, with a built-in, enthusiastic crowd of stomping supporters. One immediate surprise was hometown hero, Dominic Fragman, on washboard, drums, and general craziness. Swampcandy stayed true to its roots as a duo but slowly worked Dominic into the show whenever possible. The hard blazing energy did slow down every once and a while, particularly for a well-played “Positive Drinking” from their new album.
Once again, Dominic was there to lend some support on the drum kit. Other set highlights included Joey Mitchell, putting down the upright acoustic to play electric bass on “Dead Man Walking,” the extremely multi-dimensional tune “Hey Hey,” and the wild Naptown tribute “Charlie the Wharf Rat.” Ruben was especially on-point with his stage banter, livening up the early crowd and sharing stories about Dominic’s affinity for Vaseline, the back-story behind the song “Baseball Bats,” and an intro to “xxx” explaining that’s it’s the song that, like glue, keeps the band together. And in a completely selfless and inspiring act, the band ended their set early so that Naptown friend, Skribe, could start his set sooner. It was a great way to start a Friday full of music. I wondered after two late nights and an early set, how would the boys pull it together for another set later that night?
After checking out a bit of the Friday headliner, Brandi Carlile, I made my way over to the Speakeasy Stage once again for another nightly dose of Swampcandy. And again, there was a very strong crowd of fans already rocking out by the stage. Ruben and Joey remarked how in awe they were of everyone who made it to see their performance - given that headliner Brandi Carlile was playing at that same time. And Swampcandy did not disappoint; they dug in, stretching their jams out even harder and further.