“Hell Bound Train” review in Sonic Boomers

Delta Moon – Hell Bound Train
Red Parlor Records

By Roberta Penn
Sonic Boomers

Ever been on a Hellbound Train? It’s the ride that lulls you like a Quaalude with a vodka back. You don’t know where you’re goin’ but it feels mighty fine, all liquid and loose. The trip starts off like a joy ride. Then, though you’re still feelin’ pretty damn good, you find yourself knee walkin’ to your car, headed to the county jail with a sheriff who only looks at your tits or in the bed of a trouble man.

Tom Gray knows all about that ride, and he’s written it down and put it to music. Hellbound Train is both the title and first track on Delta Moon’s new album. Gray’s version is about bad habits and worse decisions–we’re talking gambling, guns and doin’ time–passing from daddy to son and on to a third generation. Most times life is like that when genes and upbringin’ echo each other. Gray is also the vocalist for Delta Moon. He’s got a voice like good dirt, gritty and filthy rich. It has the power to make the seeds of a story grow into an experience.

Songwriting has been good to Gray. His “Money Changes Everything” has been recorded by more than a thousand artists, including Cyndi Lauper who made it the opening song on her 1983 debut She’s So Unusual. Among the many other musicians who’ve recognized Gray’s way with words and are Manfred Mann and Carlene Carter. He also wrote a lot of the songs recorded by the Brains, an 80s new wave rock band that included Gray on keyboards. But past success doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to Gray’s get-down on Hellbound Train. Band members have added their say to some of the songs, but the hot-steel flow of Gray’s pen and his fearless, almost ruthless, way with a story are central. All of the tunes here are frighteningly, and gloriously, true to the roots of all popular music–the blues. And just as poetic. It’s the poetry in any song of troubles, transgressions and trials that takes the story from the insular world of a soap opera to the soul’s universe.

The players, playing, instrumentation and arrangements behind the tunes on the album move the music from the mind to the body; pulling in from the pain, rolling with the sexual undercurrents and spinning on the solos. Though Gray still plays keyboards his main instrument with Delta Moon is lap steel guitar. In concert with guitarist Mark Johnson the two slide players lay down in the Mississippi mud for a sound as thick as that of the ol’ Crawlin’ Kingsnake of electric blues, John Lee Hooker. Other sonic scenarios of the guitarists talkin’ to each other recall the early days of the Allman Brothers. Fellow Southern rockers Drive By Truckers also come to mind. But Delta Moon is more subtle than either of these bands, taking care with each song as if it were a baby. Johnson takes up his six-string banjo on “Get Gone,” adding a deep mountain darkness to the tale of a man who has got to keep moving. For the only cover, Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Got to Move,” the band takes to tradition. Franher Joseph exchanges his electric bass for an acoustic one, and drummer Darren Stanley goes with percussion. The final cut, “Plantation Song,” is acoustic. Though the playing is gentle and plaintive the theme is about the uneasiness that Southerners feel accepting the dichotomy of the shameful history and vibrant culture they all share. Being proud to come from Dixie only comes with making peace with it.

Delta Moon has recorded a handful of good albums already. Personnel changes influenced the mood of the recordings though Gray’s songwriting has remained constant. For the last three years this foursome has been together, and they’ve solidified their sound, found their groove. Hellbound Train is their strongest set yet. And you know it before you even hear the music. The cover is a picture of what’s inside. It was designed by the artist Flournoy Holmes, whose illustrious works include the cover of the Allman’s Eat A Peach, and realized by his son. Cooper Holmes created a linocut of that Hellbound Train; it’s an old locomotive charging through a landscape that bursts into flames. An owl sits above the scene on a tree branch, signifying the wisdom that only comes from trusting roots and taking risks. That’s the essence of Delta Moon.

— 03/12/2010

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