By Rev. Keith A. Gordon
Formed by singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Tom Gray and guitarist Mark Johnson, Delta Moon won the International Blues Challenge in 2003, and they’ve since released ten critically acclaimed studio and live albums. Low Down is the latest in a string of artfully-crafted roots ‘n’ blues collections, and the follow-up to the band’s 2012 album Black Cat Oil. With nine Gray originals or co-writes and three choice covers, Low Down takes the next step towards cementing Delta Moon’s legacy as one of America’s best roots-rock outfits.
The band’s basic sound doesn’t vary much from album to album – it’s all a heady musical gumbo of rock, blues, and soul with heavy Delta influences. Gray simply adds a few new ingredients to the stew each time around, such as with “Afterglow,” which mixes New Orleans-styled marching band drums with drawled, gruff vocals and stinging blues guitar. Gray’s rough-hewn vocals growl and snarl their way through “Mean Streak,” mixing a bit of Memphis soul with a Southern rock vibe, while the up-tempo “Open All Night” blends 1970s-era rock with exotic percussion. The Tom Waits-penned title track is dirtied up with some Mississippi mud, Gray’s serpentine lap steel adding a welcome twang to the song’s foot-shuffling arrangement.
An inspired cover of Dylan’s “Down In The Flood” is provided the full Delta treatment with a groove so languid that you can feel the kudzu hanging from every word. Gray’s interpretation of Skip James’ classic “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” is both faithful to the traditional, yet so radically adventuresome that it’s hard to know where to start. The original’s hypnotizing guitar line is slowed down and enhanced, provided a Piedmont blues similarity while a weeping background guitar enhances Gray’s breathless vocals. It’s a phenomenal performance of a familiar and frequently recorded song, but Delta Moon manages to imbue James’ original take with additional pathos and menace. As shown by Low Down, it’s Delta Moon’s ability to connect with a song’s heart – whether an original composition or a cover – that puts them in a league with better-known fellow travelers like Watermelon Slim and the Workers and the Nighthawks.