Boston-based blues trio GA-20 made an audacious gamble. They claim they are onto something big: a resurrection of the same down-home, electrified blues style that took Chicago by storm in the 1950s. They are enjoying a pay-out of legions of fans – recruited during a ferocious touring schedule – all of whom seem to agree that Crackdown completes an impressive trinity of stripped back, raw, revivalist blues we didn’t know we needed.
Perhaps it is due to their ensemble approach: the antithesis of the virtuoso style favoured by many artists flying the same blues revivalist banner. They boldly swagger into some of the most terrifying ground known to musicians – empty space – and guard it from long guitar solos while chasing melody and resisting the safety of the 12-bar structure.
It comes just a year after releasing their second album Try It…You Might Like It! GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor in which guitarists Matt Stubbs and Pat Faherty with drummer Tim Carman recreated the work of one of their biggest influences.
In order to pay sufficient homage to their hero while retaining some of their own signature warmer sound, the three vintage gear fanatics carefully selected their hardware to match that of Hound Dog and his band – The Houserockers – and played live with just two or three attempts at each song. No overdubs, no headphones, and minimal rehearsal time in order to preserve as much exuberant and instinctive energy as possible.
Hours of research and tweaking were required to achieve the Hound Dog sound; you would be forgiven for expecting such an endeavour to have influenced their new album. However, Crackdown was in fact recorded before the Hound Dog tribute, which was a project entirely conceptualised and recorded during the pandemic.
While Crackdown had already been written, global restrictions meant it could not be toured, and its release was subsequently delayed. It is therefore more of a follow-up to their first album, Lonely Soul, which comprises catchy rock and roll riffs and comes with more discernible country overtones. All three albums have been released through Colemine Records, an independent label which boasts a panoply of soulful artists such as Durand Jones and the Indications, The Dip, and Black Pumas.
Crackdown is melodic, raucous, precise, and playful. Lyrics tread familiar ground, primarily taking a doleful perspective on matters of the heart. But like good old-fashioned garage rock, their delivery is beat-driven: the vocal and drum grooves seem to sit in each other’s pockets. The album has both punchy tracks like ‘Easy on the Eyes’ or ‘I Let Someone In’, or you can get lost in the instrumental namesake.
GA-20 has been credited as luminaries of the growing resurgence of new traditional blues. Part of the attraction of the blues has long been the idea that it lurks mysteriously on the edges of the mainstream. For many fans, it possesses a powerful and untellable quality. It provides a snapshot of a completely unfamiliar time and place while employing enough ambiguity, colloquialism, and innuendo to keep us listening and trying to understand.
These days, blues fans – and indeed artists – enjoy the idea of being fringe. But in the days of Kokomo Arnold and Big Bill Broonzy, this was not the case. Throughout the early 20th century, blues was a mainstream, albeit stigmatised, genre. The vast majority of musicians were looking to make it big, and that meant appealing to as wide an audience as possible. With the development of new and exciting forms of R&B, traditional blues went out of fashion. Now, GA-20 wants to bring it back: “I think a lot of people are just not familiar with that style of blues, from the 50s and 60s”, says Stubbs, who has also long-served in Charlie Musselwhite’s touring band.
“These days, when you think of the blues, you think of blues-rock, with a lot of extended guitar shredding, a band playing just to support a guitar player who’s playing long solos… All the blues I’ve ever listened to is typically shorter songs and song-based. It’s about melody or a story. I think it’s not that people don’t like it, it’s just that they’re not familiar with it, so hopefully they can get familiar with it through us.”
GA-20 has described their music as a movement, but they do retain some humility: “Putting a mantle of responsibility on our shoulders feels a little, I don’t know, pretentious or self-important. It’s not like that. We’re just playing the music we like to hear.” Stubbs has named artists such as Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Lloyd Price, Guitar Slim, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Earl Hooker, and Freddie King as influences. What he does not mention and what really stands out on this album, however, is the roundabout way revivalism itself appears to have inspired them.
In the 1950s, the genre was uncovered by young British musicians like Mick Jagger, John Mayall, and Peter Green who lay the foundations of British blues. Their music was heavily based on Chicago blues interlaced with the rock and roll sound everyone was so excited about at that time. Crackdown shares a lot of its best qualities with seminal albums of this era: Fresh Cream; The Beano Album; Mr. Wonderful. A tried and tested recipe of a thudding beat, warm guitar tone with smooth sustain, low-fi vocals, interaction and confluence, it was always going to be a safe bet.
You can catch GA-20 live in Manchester on the European leg of their tour on November 13 at the Blues Kitchen.