Suitcase in the Hall
Swingnation Records/Vizztone Label Group
BluesWax Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Drummer Michael Bram may be a name for most blues listeners. He spent several years backing alternative pop/rock star Jason Mraz, also serving as the singer’s musical director. While on the road with Mraz, Bram spent a lot of time listening to a wide assortment of music that provided the inspiration for his own songwriting. When the time was right, Bram turned his friend, noted producer and guitarist Dave Gross, for help with the project he envisioned.
What they came up with is a recording with two personalities. For half the disc, Bram goes deep into the blues with a compelling mix of originals and some covers of well-known material. The rest of the disc finds him twisting your heartstrings with hardcore country tunes, which was once the white man’s blues music. While it may seem to be a strange mix, Bram has the vocal chops to make it all work.
Besides being the drummer and lead vocalist, Bram also plays harmonica, mandolin, rhythm guitar, and percussion. Producer Gross handles most of the lead guitar parts in addition to upright and electric bass, plus the harmonium. Scot Hornick plays upright bass on six tracks, while Jeremy Baum sits in on the Hammond B3 and piano. The steel and lap steel guitar sound are contributed by Cindy Cashdollar.
The disc opens with “It Doesn’t Matter Where You Get Your Appetite,” an original with a slinky rhythm and tremolo-laden guitar tones that finds the singer battling to stay faithful despite the temptations of life. “Watch Out” comes across as a tribute to Howlin’ Wolf. Bram’s voice doesn’t have the power and depth of the legendary bluesman, but he is able to capture the spirit of Wolf’s music. The band sets up a nice shuffle groove on “Suitcase in the Hall” with Bram blowing some nice harp before guest Chris Vitarello rips off a tasty guitar solo. They revisit the Wolf legacy on a version of “Howlin’ For My Darlin’ “ that features Bram’s distorted vocal and tough harp licks. The rocking groove on “Chinese Hot Mustard” makes the track a highlight, getting a boost from Matt Cowan’s rousing baritone sax solo and Jeremy Baum’s rollicking piano. The proceedings take an eerie turn on “Got Love If You Want It,” as Bram’s voice seems to be rising out of the mists of the swamp and his harp serves as beacon to guide you back home.
Bram takes a lighter vocal approach on Kris Kristofferson’s “Nobody Wins,” which takes a hard look at a fading relationship with Cashdollar’s steel guitar setting the appropriate mood. “Drinking Champagne” is another country tearjerker about a man trying to outrun the memories of lost love. “I’m Going Away and Leave My Baby” is a country-blues tune that gets a dose of old-time New Orleans jazz compliments of Cowan on clarinet and Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet. Bram’s touching vocal on “I Love You So Much It Hurts Me” is another highlight as the guitar interplay between Gross and Cashdollar creates a stark musical landscape. The closing cut,“Can I Sleep in Your Arms,” finds Gross steadily building a lush arrangement that has Cashdollar’s guitar crying out behind Bram’s poignant vocal on Hank Cochran’s forlorn ballad.
Some listeners may be put off by the magnitude of Bram’s country influences, but if you give this one a chance, repeated listens will reveal that Bram and his friends have managed to tap into the roots that bind blues and country – not by trying to combine them but simply by giving both genres an honest rendering. At the heart of it all is a singer who understands how to tell a story without letting a lot of verbal gymnastics get in the way. There’s no doubt that Michael Bram is a talent deserving of wider recognition, so give him a chance to win you over!
Mark Thompson is a contributing writer at BluesWax.
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