Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
MORELAND & ARBUCKLE
Promised Land Or Bust
by Greg Easterling
Alligator Records, the world’s preeminent blues music label, had a huge presence at the recent Laid Back Festival starring Gregg Allman and Peter Frampton, held July 16th on Chicago’s lakefront. Alligator also celebrated its 45th anniversary at the 2016 Chicago Blues Festival earlier in June. At both events, Alligator showcased their more traditional blues lineup anchored by Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, Rick Estrin and the Nightcats and Roomful of Blues. Alligator also promoted their latest signings, all of whom have major crossover potential: Chicago bluesman Toronzo Cannon, award winning vocalist Shemekia Copeland (a re-signing) and a Kansas based roots rock duo, Moreland & Arbuckle.
Guitarist Aaron Moreland and singer/harpist Dustin Arbuckle are no pretty boy newcomers – they came to Alligator with six albums under their belts. Joined by drummer Kendall Newby, this band is all about the music. Moreland & Arbuckle were born in 1974 and 1981 respectively, sharing an early fascination with the blues and classic influences such as Son House, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Hound Dog Taylor. The bond was forged when they met at an open mic session in their shared hometown of Wichita, Kansas back in 2001. Their interest in Hound Dog Taylor is significant both musically and symbolically. Taylor was Alligator’s first signing, a major reason why company founder and president Bruce Iglauer started the label. Moreland & Arbuckle adopted Taylor’s nonstandard lineup of no bass player after listening to Hound Dog’s Alligator releases.
That being said, Moreland & Arbuckle’s Alligator Records’ debut, Promised Land or Bust doesn’t have Blues Band written all over it. It’s a versatile sounding roots rock effort with blues influences by a band that would be just as comfortable playing South by Southwest or Lollapalooza as the more conventional blues festival circuit that includes the Chicago Blues Festival and Aurora’s annual Blues On the Fox, both of which have featured Moreland & Arbuckle.
There’s traces of ZZ Top and Zeppelin in the blues-rock of this band. M & A have apparently borrowed their beards and no nonsense, intensive music approach from The Band (Levon Helm, Rick Danko, et al.) as well as The Band’s own early music influences: Muddy and the Wolf. One thing that can’t be borrowed is the ability to write good original songs, a major challenge for any band. Six of the album’s eleven tracks come from the pens of Moreland & Arbuckle plus a great cover of a Slim Harpo classic.
It all begins with “Take Me With You (When You Go)”, the obvious lead track written by all three members with the words of the album title “promised land or bust” embedded in the lyrics. It’s a song about a journey of near Biblical proportions as “forty days turn to forty years”. What it’s all about is open to interpretation, like many great songs, but it also serves as an enticing introduction to the album musically with its classic blues-rock revival; it’s played at medium tempo with Arbuckle’s soulful vocals and an especially great guitar solo by Moreland.
“Mean And Evil” follows, a badass blues stomp that gallops through more traditional territory lyrically, featuring an effective harp solo by Arbuckle. “Hell don’t want you/they told me so” invokes a spirit world where the Devil is real.
The album’s third song, “Hannah” gets gothic with a trip to the boneyard; “under the oak tree is where my Hannah sleeps”. Exactly how she got there is unclear but the song’s dirge-like tempo invokes “When The Levee Breaks” joined musically with “Graveyard Train” type lyrics, from John Fogerty’s image of Bayou Country.
“When The Lights Are Burning Low” is a lusty song in praise of an irresistible lover. Another band original, it’s a driving rocker with plenty of good blues harp and descriptive lyrics. ‘She’s my solid sender…she fills my loving cup.’ Moreland’s lead guitar work is especially compelling here.
Moreland & Arbuckle find more traditional blues band territory in songs such as “Woman Down In Arkansas,” “Long Did I Hide It,” and of course, “I’m A King Bee,” the Slim Harpo blues standard covered by many over the years including The Rolling Stones and The Siegel Schwall Blues Band. Moreland & Arbuckle shine on their respective instruments, showing they learned their early blues lessons well.
Later album songs such as “Mount Comfort” and “Waco Avenue” are more reflective and specific for particular places, both geographically and emotionally. The latter is more acoustic and wouldn’t sound out of place on a country music release while the former boasts a blistering guitar solo and the sentiment, ‘so tired of being all alone.’
“Long Way Home,” the album’s next to last track is a late surprise as a Creedence like blues-rocker that employs a tasty mix of slide guitar and blues harp by Moreland & Arbuckle.
Even though their name is relatively unfamiliar at this point, Moreland & Arbuckle are real road warriors, playing hundreds of shows coast to coast and across Europe. In 2008, they traveled all the way to Iraq to play for the troops. And they have appeared on concert bills that include ZZ Top, George Thorogood, Mavis Staples, Buddy Guy, Los Lonely Boys and Alligator label mate Shemekia Copeland.
Promised Land or Bust is the latest and potentially most prominent chapter in a career that should take Moreland & Arbuckle far. Their musicianship and songwriting craft distinguish them in a music world full of pop fluff and imitation. Together with Alligator Records, it’s a match we hope works to the benefit of both.
Greg Easterling holds down the 12 midnight – 5 a.m. shift on WDRV (97.1 FM) He also hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.