Perhaps everybody who grew up on classic rock knows that in late 1962, bassist Billy Talbot teamed up with guitarist Danny Whitten and later, drummer Ralph Molina to become Crazy Horse, the back-up band for Neil Young’s 1969′s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Most music lovers also know that 40+ years later, off and on with changing membership, Crazy Horse has enjoyed a lengthy, if uneven, association with Young.
Fewer people know that Talbot issued his first solo album in 2004, Alive in the Spirit World. For that release, the Billy Talbot Band included guitarist Matt Piucci (Rain Parade and Moving Sidewalks), Erik Pearson (horns, banjo, lap steel), Mark Hanley (lap steel, mandolin, and guitar), Tommy Carns (bass), and Stephan Junca on drums. This group returned for this year’s On the Road to Spearfish, along with the significant performances of Ryan James Holzer on trombone, harmonica, autoharp, organ, and acoustic guitar.
A number of adjectives spring to mind describing this ensemble’s new piece of work. Stark. Sparse. Reflective. Moody. Plaintive. That’s because the very personal portrait of the open spaces of the North American prairie surrounding Spearfish, South Dakota is where Talbot and his wife live in a restored homestead. The sparseness of the music reflects those wide open spaces and it’s a place of ballads and quiet tunes, not rockin’ Crazy Horse jams.
That’s made clear in the yearning opening track, “Empty Stadium,” an atypical slow start to any album. That atmospheric pace continues with “Runnin Around” and “Cold Wind” with the gentle trombones, sax, and brushes on Junca’s drums.
Only twice do we get the raw, fuzz-tone buzzing guitar workouts reminiscent of songs like Young’s “Cowgirl in the Sand” or “Down by the River.” The first is the fourth track, “On the Road to Spearfish.” The album’s showpiece clocks in just under 13 minutes and was apparently inspired by Talbot watching the first episode of HBO’s dark modern Western, Deadwood. In that episode, a family of Squareheads – a slur for Swedish immigrants – was massacred “on the road to Spearfish,” 15 miles from the actual town of Deadwood in South Dakota.
After the title song, Talbot returns to the mournful pace of longer songs like “Big Rain,” which is about rivers rising after flooding. He looks back into cowboy history for “The Herd” and “Miller Drive.” The very repetitive “God and Me” is about just that.
Finally, the mood lifts and the drums quicken for the triumphant “Ring the Bell,” where the darkness of the early numbers gives way to an affirmative grand finale. As with the title song, “Ring the Bell” demonstrates Talbot learned much about vocal delivery (although far from the same register) and building choruses and cadences from a certain Canadian rocker.
On the Road to Spearfish is one of those albums akin to reading a carefully plotted novella where the lyrics match the subtle and idiosyncratic colors of folk/country/rock instrumentation layered with solo trombone and saxophone lines. It’s meant to take you to a place where time has minimal meaning but where there’s something almost mystical about its drawing power. Did I mention Spearfish isn’t that far from the Black Hills of South Dakota where a certain Crazy Horse once rode? Perhaps he’s one of the spirits haunting Talbot’s new music.