Sunday, September 7, 2014

Album Review — The JAG Sessions, Filling In The Blanks

In 1997, Raleigh’s 6 String Drag released an album, High Hat, that critics raved about and the band’s cult following still believes to this day to be an essential classic.

Kenny Roby, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, never cared much for High Hat. In Roby’s mind, while producer Steve Earle captured the raw energy that marked 6 String Drag’s incendiary live performances, he never quite caught the full essence of the band’s sound and spirit. To Roby’s thinking, this made High Hat a wrong that needed to be corrected.

Seventeen years later, with 6 String Drag reformed, playing live shows again and putting the finishing touches on a new album for early 2015 release, The JAG Sessions - Rare And Unreleased 1996-98 goes a long way towards filling in the blanks that High Hat never addressed. Recorded by local legend Byron McCay during sessions at Raleigh’s JAG Studios in 1996 and 1998, The JAG Sessions showcases many of 6 String Drag’s strengths much more effectively than High Hat.

First of all, Roby is a gifted and creative lead singer with a powerful baritone/tenor voice and great vocal range. That voice never gets fully unleashed on High Hat. Furthermore, Roby and bass player Rob Keller give 6 String Drag a tight and harmonious vocal mix up front, which is evident on High Hat, but often gets lost in the muddled production. Instrumentally, 6 String Drag has a huge, larger-than-life sound, especially when augmented by the Countdown Quartet’s horn section. While High Hat screams bigness, it mostly swings and misses on the tightness of 6 String Drag’s sound. In fact, High Hat has to be one of the loosest-sounding records ever recorded. The Jag Sessions corrects these and other problems with a much cleaner mix and a more band-centered approach to the recording and production. The result is a leaner and more muscular sound that highlights the band’s most appealing attributes instead of burying them.

The JAG Sessions consists of demos 6 String Drag cut for a possible Columbia Records album that never happened, a follow-up EP to High Hat that E-Squared — Earle’s record label — would not release, and other various stray recordings and demos. Four of the songs on The JAG Sessions appeared on High Hat — the contrast is an eye-opener, by the way — and four more later surfaced on subsequent Roby solo albums. Considering the disparate nature of the material, The JAG Sessions holds together as a remarkably cohesive and well-sequenced unit, one that more than holds its own as a companion piece to High Hat in the 6 String Drag canon.

Ultimately, The JAG Sessions complements rather than displaces High Hat as the final statement on 6 String Drag’s heyday. As mentioned above, 6 String Drag was (and still is, all these years later) a powerhouse in concert, and High Hat just crackles with the energy of a live recording. Roby never wanted to make a live-in-the-studio record, however, which explains much of his displeasure. Roby wanted to record a 6 String Drag studio album. The JAG Sessions goes a long way towards fulfilling that long overdue goal.

When all is said and done, High Hat is still a classic, an essential snapshot of time and place for a great and largely overlooked band, for the absolutely joyous and unbridled enthusiasm of its performances. The JAG Sessions, on the other hand, is a more fully realized portrait of the band at work, more nuanced and fully fleshed out, loaded with energy yet not electrifying in the manner of a live performance, which was the point all along. In the end, both are equally satisfying (except maybe to Roby) but for entirely different reasons. Taken in tandem, they give a glimpse of what might have been had it not been for the hazards and general vagaries of the damned music industry.

If you were a 6 String Drag fan back in the day but haven’t seen them since they reformed, or if you just heard about them and are curious, they are every bit as electrifying in concert as they were 17 years ago. They blew the roof off the Pour House back on Jan. 4, and their featured performance Oct. 5 at King’s Barcade during Raleigh’s Hopscotch Festival, while limited to an hour, simply overwhelmed a capacity crowd. They may be older and more settled in their lives, but they still can conjure that inner rocker and light up a concert stage.

Their new album, meanwhile, featuring the original five-man lineup plus horns and due for release in January, is tremendous, just a fantastic listening experience. Recorded mostly live in the manner of records from 60 and 70 years ago — but not intended as a live-in-the-studio record — the new album derives much of its influences from the great roots music of the early rock ‘n’ roll era. After repeated plays, it comes across as kind of a 21st century soundtrack to The Last Picture Show, and that is definitely meant as a compliment.

Considering their history, it would be foolish to miss 6 String Drag the next time they play a venue near you, or not to buy The JAG Sessions now or the new album in January. They broke up in 1998 and nearly went away for good. That's rock 'n' roll. It’s still kind of shocking that they got back together. So don’t take them for granted this time around. You never know when the magic will end. And so far, the reunion has been mostly magic.

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