Churchwood performs a vital and much-needed musical mission on their self-titled Saustex Records debut album: Saving the blues from the blahs and numerous other crimes and afflictions. Hailing from Austin, Texas, a city rightfully accused of being “The Boring White Blues Capital of the World,” the ingenious quintet kick the lazy butt of blues music into the second decade of the 21st Century and beyond.
And they do so with Bohemian panache, gonzo élan, punky ‘tude, bluesy grit and stunning musical mastery and imagination while keeping a firm rock’n’roll Vulcan death grip on the roots of the blues. The result is a sound that’s rife with the beef and the heart — if you get the drift — plus mind-expanded smarts and relentlessly wild and wooly soul.
The sonic scoop on Churchwood might best be expressed by a sampling of their song titles: The French symbolist poetics meets the rock’n’roll Burundi beat of “Rimbaud Diddley,” the mojo rising to a tempest of “Vendidi Fumar” (“I Sell Smoke”), and the soaring shredded shuffle of “Supermonisticgnositiphistic.” They take a funky ride through the backwoods blues with “Pontiac Flanagan,” invite you to “Melungeon In The Dungeon,” shuffle up to the gallows on “Pity The Noose,” and open a “Can O’ Worms” that stomps, swirls and snarls. “Ulysses” takes a country-blues trot across the Grecian delta, “Abraxas” burrows way down deep, and then it all comes to a full-throttle pummeling crescendo with a “Car Crash.”
As guitarists Bill Anderson and Billysteve Korpi slash, slide, crunch and bend their six strings with lysergic abandon, drummer Julien Peterson and bassist Adam Kahan plow deep new grooves through the blues with twirling syncopation, and singer and harp player Joe Doerr wails, growls and howls like a mystic in the savage state. It’s synesthesia you can dance to, blues that’s refreshingly bereft of hoary bullpucky, and music that melds the heart, mind and crotch in an ecstatic orgy of sonic, melodic and linguistic adventurism.
The band has already inspired breathless raves in performance. “Though its members reside in Austin, wiry avant-blues collective Churchwood found its groove near the Dadaland exit off Highway 61,” notes writer Greg Beets in the Austin Chronicle. And as the San Antonio Express-News reports, “Austin's dapper Churchwood played blues rock like a butcher knife: sharp and greasy with the potential to draw blood. Singer Joe Doerr had the fervor of a revival tent preacher, though he wasn't necessarily working from the Good Book.”
Churchwood reunites Austin Music Hall of Fame guitarist and songwriter Bill Anderson and singer, harmonica maven, published poet and lyricist galore Joe Doerr after a 20 year break following their time in the legendary Texas bands Ballad Shambles and Hand Of Glory. In the interim, Anderson — hailed by the Austin Chronicle as a “whip-cracking badass” — played in such kaleidoscopically diverse bands as The Horsies, Joan of Arkansas, The Meat Purveyors and Cat Scientist while also working with such outsider musical artistes as Daniel Johnston, Neko Case and Jon Langford.
Meanwhile Doerr — who as famed rock critic Robert Christgau observes, “sings like he only masturbates twice a day because his boner makes it impossible for him to walk to his car” — finished his bachelors degree and earned a full ride scholarship doctorate from Notre Dame, published his first volume of modernist poetry, and now corrupts callow youth with the decadent magic of the language as a professor at Austin’s St. Edward's University.
The latest collaboration from these longtime pals and partners in musical crime first slithered out of the primordial ooze when Anderson discovered the country-blues of Robert Johnson, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt and Big Bill Broozy on old scratchy 12-inch long players at the local library during his high school years in Maryland. Landing in Austin in 1982, he worked as a roadie for the infamous Big Boys before signing on as a guitarist with seminal post-punk pioneers Poison 13.
Doerr arrived in the capital city of Texas a year later from St. Louis at age 21 “running away from trouble,” he quips. He joined up with his brother’s group The LeRoi Brothers to sing and wail the harp as Kid LeRoi for two albums of what Trouser Press describes as “solidly American music given a sweaty workout.”
The two then joined forces in the mid-‘80s in Ballad Shambles. Fittingly, the band made its live debut opening for the late Alex Chilton and released an EP on Skyclad Records. That group then morphed into Hand Of Glory, which Trouser Press hailed as “a diverse and exciting quartet. Mixing up cowboy rock, blues, Doorsy atmospherics and more with confidence and creativity, Hand of Glory is a strikingly potent band.” Issuing two albums on Skyclad, HOG has been rightfully accused of developing a sound that presaged what became known as grunge while a simmering Seattle scene only started to boil around the time the group broke up in 1991.
A few years ago Anderson found himself “on this Captain Beefheart trip where I listened to him all time, it made me want to play blues music again, but not the tired old one-four-five shuffle.” Doerr was of course once again his perfect vocal and lyrical foil.
Cat Scientist bassist Peterson made the switch to drums and followed Anderson into Churchwood, soon afterwards to be aided and abetted by bass player Kahan, who Anderson played with in the pit band for the play Speeding Motorcycle, a trippy dramatization of Daniel Johnston’s psyche. Korpi, veteran of such Austin bands as The Crack Pipes, Bloody Tears and Victims of Leisure, completed the lineup to add double guitar whammy in tandem with Anderson.
Creating a genuine band and music that was refreshingly original is the group’s raison d’etre. “Rather than just show how well we can play solos, I’d rather just create something all our own that no one else can do because we made it up,” asserts Anderson.
“What the other guys are doing musically is the same as what I am doing lyrically,” adds Doerr. “I’m just trying to say what nobody else has said.”
As Doerr puts it, “We are Churchwood, and we meant to do that.” Or as the Austin Chronicle advises, “This is one rabbit hole you won’t mind falling down.”