Last week Scrapomatic rolled out their third CD Sidewalk Caesars, and once again progenitors Mike Mattison and Paul Olsen are bringing the spirit of mid-twentieth century folk blues to the early twenty-first century.
There's not a shortage of acts out there bringing the roots music to a more contemporary audience, a trend I welcome, by the way. Swamp Cabbage and Paul Thorn are just a couple of other examples we highlighted here. Everyone's got their own unique approach to roots music these days. Mattison and Olsen get it done primarily by excelling in the songwriting and singing department.
Since their days playing together in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area during the mid-nineties, Mattison (vocals) and Olsen (vocals, guitar) have forged a musical partnership writing songs and performing together that took them to New York in 1997. Years of steady gigging in the NYC area culminated in their first album six years later.
When the Derek Trucks Band made Mattison their lead vocalist back in 2002, it was the equivalent of Derek Trucks' Jeff Beck belatedly finding his Rod Stewart with Mattison. Mattison's pipes are intense, moderately raspy but pliable, which brought the perfect soulful and hard rocking vocal complement to Trucks' highly distinctive, southern-fried guitar attack. There's just as much reason to listen to Mattison as there is Trucks on DTB's widely cheered Songlines from a couple of years ago, and that's saying a lot.
Olsen takes a less visible role in the band but it's just as important. He lends songwriting acumen, some Delta guitar, and a singing voice that isn't a strong as Mattison's—few are—but provides a nice counterpoint and backing. When Scrapomatic is on hiatus, Olsen stays busy as a bandleader in New York.
Scrapomatic is a band with a cool name and the music to match. While 2003's self-titled debut was a fine start, Sidewalk Caesars is rootsier and much more focused (I haven't had the opportunity to listen to the second album, Alligator Love Cry, quite yet).
Lyrically speaking, the focus is often on excessive libating ("find me in the drink house, three sheets to the wind," "drinking all that liquor, man I never been sicker," "a young man got his shoes wet in a drunken revival"). There's also tales of heartache ("Long Gone") and yearning ("He Called My Name," "I Want the Truth").
Through it all, the spirit of the Delta music from guys like Howlin' Wolf, Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt shine through in a somewhat more contemporary setting.
Instrumentally speaking, the better focus comes from cutting the record with their tight little touring band made up of drums (Tyler "Falcon" Greenwell), bass (Ted Pecchio), and a second guitar (Dave Yoke). The first two guys have played in Susan Tedeschi's and Col. Bruce Hampton's bands. It's no coincidence that the expert slide on tracks like "I Want The Truth" and "He Called My Name" brings the Allman Brothers Band immediately to mind; that's Mattison's boss Trucks making a guest appearance on these songs.
Obviously, the cuts with Trucks on them are highlights, but the song that best exemplifies the duality of Scrapomatic's voices is "Drink House." It's a down-home good time tune that goes in two tempos. There's a a lazy one with guitars straight from the plantation and Mattison pleading "baby come on." The quickened pace features Olsen's fragile tenor slurring off lines each ending with a classic JB line "with your bad self." It's a delivery that perfectly fits lines like
I ain't no doctor, woman
I ain't no doctor's son
But I can cool your fever
Until your doctor comes
Elsewhere, Mattison puts a lot of soul in his vocal performance on the Wolf-styled blues "Killing Yourself On Purpose," going up to a smooth falsetto at one point. "Rembember This Day" is the one Mattison-Olsen collaboration on this and it's good, wholesome organic soul.
Olsen, who's previously won an ASCAP award for a composition he wrote for their first album, is well on his game here. Besides penning "Drink House," he's also responsible for new nuggets like the country-inflected "Hook, Line and Sniker," the stomper "Fire Next Time," and the ardent ballad "Long Haired State."
The only covers on this CD are a quick run-through of Skip James' "Drunken Spree," which sticks close to the spirit of James' 1930 original, and the all-out rocker "I Just Wanna Hang Around With You" from R. Hazard. "Good Luck With Your Impossible Dream" closes the album with a gentle country-folk number by Mattison.
Folk, country, blues…at one time there was little difference among the three. With Sidewalk Caesars, Scrapomatic is blurring the lines again among these great original American music forms and bringing it to modern times with the vitality intact. It's all about how you sing it, play it, and write about it. Mike Mattison and Paul Olsen understand.