When I first heard the story of singer/guitarist Geoff Achison, I was amazed to be reminded of the very far flung reach of American blues. We all know the stories of how a generation of U.K. longhairs discovered the treasures of Chess Records and brought the music back to the states in the guise of British Invasion rock and roll. But Australia?
I don’t know if Achison’s home town of Malmsbury in southeastern Australia can be called the “outback,” but his publicity describes the area as isolated and rural. It was there he built a small record collection including albums from one of those British Invaders, Eric Clapton. Having only a used guitar he discovered under the stairs with no way of knowing how the electric sounds he heard were played, Achison invented his own ways to replicate the effects usually created with pedals. All these years later, those childhood techniques remain part of his craft.
After spending time performing with Melbourne blues outfits, Achison spread his wings in the mid-1990s. Jumping from continent to continent, he built musical bases in both the states and England. Becoming a favorite of critics and fellow bluesmen, Achison has assembled a variety of groups called “Souldiggers” over the years, drawing from the musicians available wherever he happened to be at any given time. When his 2005 Little Big Men was recorded and released in Australia, the Souldiggers were keyboardist Mal Logan, bassist Roger McLachlan, and drummer Gerry Pantazis. Now, that album has been released for an American audience, re-mastered with three bonus tracks.
Little Big Men is a collection of 14 tracks showcasing the raspy, gruff vocals of Achison, his often very original lyrics, and his clear, confident guitar lines that aren’t flashy displays of pyrotechnics. While the tempos and styles draw from a variety of musical wells, there’s a consistent tone of smooth Memphis grooving with an emphasis on the songs, not virtuosic soloing.
For example, the opener, “Crazy Horse,” is a demonstration of what will follow, a seamless blend of jazz, blues, and funk. There are sometimes overt, sometimes subtle nods to his influences throughout. “News” is reminiscent of the Peggy Lee hit, “Fever,” but this time the melody swings to lyrics about what the singer is hearing on the news. While the shadow of B. B. King is obvious on virtually every song, nowhere is it more evident than “Wagging The Dog,” which is a melodic and performance sister to “The Thrill is Gone.”
While Achison is always center-stage, the supporting players and vocalists add their colors throughout the program. Backed by an intermittently heard Gospel trio, Achison’s “Little Big Men” is about a salesman who needs someone to take him down a peg. With a pulsating bass line from McLachlan, “Rule the World” asks what kind of man wants to rule everything. Pantazis shows off his percussion chops on “Zombify” where Achison wonders what you’re trying to do with his mind. Here, he draws from his simulated sound effects toolbag to, well, do something with our heads.
There’s nothing Aussie about “Bit By Bit” which is a little bit Nashville. Step by step, dream by dream, a girl goes for a ride down a path where others see only wrong choices. “Fake Identity” builds on Latin rhythms and stretching notes to comment on someone living a double life, maybe yours. Want a touch of reggae? “Never Give It Up” delivers, telling a Rastafarian inspired story of a man standing his ground. Want an old-fashioned guitar god workout? The instrumental “Reach For The Sky” is just that and a likely monster encore on stage. The original set winds down with perhaps the most expressive song of the collection, “Boy.” Is that an homage to Roy Buchanan in those crying notes? The bonus tracks include “Carrie Lou” and “Your Chance Has Gone” which bring in horns and pounding energy to nail the whole thing down.
Little Big Men can’t be described as a triumphant debut release nor one of the best blues albums of either 2005 or 2012. But it is a laid-back, in the pocket set with atypical lyrics for a blues collection. The guitar parts are more subtle than many of Achison’s contemporaries are known for. It’s a very pleasing listening experience for those who like their blues polished, slick, and very, very tight.