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Sincere as Folk

Boston's Tarbox Ramblers Aren't the Typical Blues Carpetbaggers

By Rob Trucks | Posted 2/25/2004

In case you hadn't noticed, bands of musical marauders--most notably the Black Keys and the White Stripes--have recently swooped down from the north, stripped traditional Delta blues for parts, and used them to rebuild a more contemporary sound. Add Boston's Tarbox Ramblers to the list of tuneful pillagers.

"I don't consider myself a blues musician," says 46-year-old Michael Tarbox. "You know, I just feel like that's a place and a time, and I grew up in the Northeast in the 20th century. I mean, I think that Skip James is a blues musician, but rock 'n' roll is as much a part of my scene as much as anything else."

On their just-released second CD, A Fix Back East (Rounder), the Ramblers' sound is aggressively raw, though thicker and less brittle than their achromatic counterparts. Whereas the White Stripes and Black Keys take a core of blues out back to the postmodern garage, the Tarbox Ramblers are content with more conventional front-porch country--provided that porch is attached to the ramshackle domicile of an ominous backwoods cousin.

For East, the Ramblers--singer/guitarist Tarbox, upright bassist Johnny Sciascia, violinist Daniel Kellar, and three different drummers--traveled to Memphis to record with legendary studio musician Jim Dickinson, who has recorded with and produced artists from Duane Allman and Alex Chilton to Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Mudhoney in his 30-plus year career. "Jim Dickinson is very seasoned," Tarbox says. "And he knows so-called roots music back and forth. I mean, he knows old blues. He knows rockabilly. He knows all of that stuff, but he's also recorded bands like Big Star and the Replacements so he has sort of a rock reference as well.

"The way we recorded was we'd go into the studio and more or less do the songs on site. The guys didn't really know the songs. I just introduced them there in the studio and I think it gave things an edge. I really wanted to kind of see what that would feel like, and I had had conversations with Dickinson that led me to believe that that was something that he was interested in as well. Philosophically, he's one of those one-take, two-take kind of guys, and he has a finely honed, well-developed sense of the moment. I think that's his sort of guiding philosophy--that you want to go and catch the moment."

The off-the-cuff approach exercised in Memphis is also being used on the Ramblers' current road trip. Though Tarbox's band held down a weekly Cambridge, Mass., gig for the better part of four years and played a short string of dates with Robert Plant, touring is something, if not new, then at least uncommon for the group.

"The road's more challenging," Tarbox says. "It throws you curve balls. You know, you're playing for different groups of people and different sized crowds every night and it's just a different bag altogether. There's less comfort in it, and I think that's a good thing. And things happen when you're playing that are really wonderful. The arrangements really evolve more rapidly, and I think there ends up being more depth to what you do because you're in front of people every night, and somehow it comes out in music as a good thing."

Whereas the Ramblers' 2000 self-titled debut relied heavily on songs mature enough to reside in the public domain--such as "Jack of Diamonds" and "St. James Infirmary"--Tarbox made a point of including more originals on A Fix Back East. His writing regimen, however, sounds more academic than musical. Not only is Tarbox an early riser, but he works on lyrics first, separately, without a guitar in hand.

"I would read a lot, drink coffee," he says. "You know, get up early in the morning. It's trial and error and it's very slow. A lot of stuff was written at 5, 6, 7 in the morning. I just think about lyrics and things come to me, or I look around and I see something, or I'll think about something that I read that'll get me going on a certain track. And then I get up and I go and I play, and it usually feels kind of separate, but sometimes things happen in tandem. Somehow I'll attach the music to the lyrics, but frequently they've come about separately and I find a way to make them work together."

One East original, "The Shining Sun," is based on the Thom Jones short story "I Need a Man to Love Me." Throughout Jones' fiction his characters--cornered boxers, Vietnam vets, self-medicating doctors--wrestle with violence and rage, determination and perseverance in the face of near preordained defeat, subject matter not unfamiliar to blues practitioners. "A song like 'Ashes to Ashes' is a violent song," Tarbox says. "It's a violent narrative, and that was a hard thing for me to do. I wasn't entirely comfortable with it. I almost didn't include it on the record for that reason, but in the end I started thinking, Yeah, it's worth including it, you know. It's worth deciding to go with that kind of feeling.

"Violence in music has always attracted me in many ways," he continues. "If you think of 'I Heard Her Call My Name' by the Velvet Underground, the guitar on that--it's unbelievable. Something like that is just always appealing. I think there's always been an element of that in the rock music I like, and I think there's always been an element of it in the older music, like blues music, too."

Roots Café presents the Tarbox Ramblers at St. Johns Church on Feb. 28. For more information, call (410) 880-3883 or visit www.rootscafe.org.

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