A standard conversation with someone espousing a lifelong passion for guitar-based rock’n’roll might go like this: “What do you think of music today?” says the first, with the response being “it sucks,” or, “I can’t think of one good new band today.” As long-time Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau recently put it, while espousing the primacy of hip hop and world music, if you are into guitar-based rock, which is to say, the blues turned up, then you are “shit out of luck.” And this is more than American Idol disease. If you scan the zeitgeist of such modern music web outlets as Pitchfork.com, you might learn that all music began with David Bowie and was perfected by Sonic Youth. The site’s collective vibe about a miraculous number of new performers, none of whom you’ve ever heard of (for one pretty sure that all rock began with Robert Johnson and was then appropriated by Elvis and Mick) pretty much eschews the blues. Steve Earle, after releasing the album “Terraplane Blues,” said recently he couldn’t understand why some critics said it was “derivative.” How can an approach to expression that snaked its way into the 20th century to change the world’s tune, well delivered on a raw Dukes’ recording, be derivative, instead of traditional, Earle asks. One wonders: like Fox News Papa Bill O’Reilly’s mournful “War on Christmas,” is there a war on the blues?
Well, if there is, the Denver-based band The Yawpers might be able to turn the tide. Or, a lot more bands like the power-trio would. Even lead singer and songwriter Nate Cook has felt the sting of the war on the blues on the new record “American Man” released just last week on the Bloodshot label. He says some of the early reviews criticized the new release — “some bad reviews” — for some of the same reasons as what Earle yawped about as being “derivative.”
“Our music has been a paradigm for the better part of the twentieth century,” he says, agreeing that after all that time, there might now be a “backlash.”
But blues-based rock, now charged up by a new generation with punk and heavy metal running through the veins, is in good hands with The Yawpers, who are capable of adding a fresh intelligence to the lyrics and, knowing how to build the momentum, to produce mountains of focused and gritty blues-bashed goodness like only a great three-piece can.
The really scary thing about The Yawpers is they do hard-edged Americana with two acoustic guitars and drums. The low grinds of the two guitars make you feel like there’s bass there, when there isn’t, and cascades of steel pedal riffs make it hard to believe the instrument hadn’t been modified for Zepped-up electric amps by R.L. Burnside. The record, produced fully live by Johnny Hickman, the guitarist for Cracker, has a crackling authenticity, with the teamwork for pacing and volume heavy youthful abandon reminiscent of one of their heroes and musical forebears, The Meat Puppets. Reviewers have taken amazing leaps to describe their sound, most of it having to do with dirt, blood, beer, cavernous bars or the 70s bands Mountain, MC5 and Blue Cheer (who knew?). But The Yawpers’ Cook leaves all of that journalistic poetry splicing to greater minds, saying reviews of music are “like trying to describe architecture.”
Yes, The Yawpers dish out punked up blues with a thought in its head, lyrically speaking. Cook says he wasn’t sure about how the band’s name aesthetic would work out, but he’s now much more comfortable with the fact the name came from a poem by Walt Whitman, from “Leaves of Grass”: ” “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Linking the pre-literate age of America to the current post-literate, in a world neutron bombed with musical ditties suited for waiting in line at the store to buy the newest smart watch, Cook says the Denver music scene, where waves of folkies had been coming out snack food crisp, is finally breaking away into a more rumbling, rocking era. Great sounds will always float over the land of just plain stupid, and yawping frequently seems to be the cure. Regarding Whitman, Cook now says the band name works because the title, and their music, is about “the blessed individual. The individual as sacrament.”
As in: “The death of the individual,” says Cook. “It is an intentionally brash record, but it’s not outwardly un-PC. It’s not a manifesto, but it does draw from a set of guidelines with songs about the state of the individual in the Western World.”
The title track, “American Man,” and a song about how real freedom comes when you can work “Nine to Five” all feature themes of the vacated belief that not only can a single individual not make a difference, a person cannot even be an individual. Not, at least, in the epic American way of thinking about it. With the tough economic backdrop, he sings of the burned out land: “This is my home but I’m a stranger here / If I had any left I’d cry American tears.”
Cook grew up in a small town near San Antonio that he described as a “gun-toting, right wing” dystopia. So he’s picked up a few things about how yearning and desperation are two sides of the same coin. He attended classes at Northern Arizona University 11 years ago before moving on to Colorado, where he latched onto the recession era bumcore sound of Denver’s Colfax Avenue music scene and such bands as Bluebird Theater regulars American Relay, which blasted walls of Jimi Hendrix style blues with just drums and guitar. “I never met them,” Cook says, “but I did see them play.”
Another banjo-and-washboard minimalist folk-riot, Reverand Peyton’s Big Damn Band, also fits the organic elements inspiring The Yawpers assault on American roots rock. A small band, which didn’t evolve with a bass because there wasn’t anyone around to play it by the time they were doing shows, is just good economic sense. Cook had adopted his parents love for Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Neil Young, and especially Bruce Springsteen, and now there’s a lot of the Boss in the way he creates characters for his common man themes on “American Man.”
“I always had an interest in doing proletarian music with more of a literary slant,” he says. “We have a twisted take on the blues, a more high-minded approach to the blues. We like recording things totally live, and for whatever reason that has worked out for us.”