This is one of two columns I posted this week. The second, which you can reach through the archive, replaces last week’s half-hearted effort, although I’m going to leave that one up as a reminder to myself never to do anything like it again. The new column contains the real Second Quarter Report, ordered from 10 to 1 instead of in alphabetical order.
Apologies for last week, and I hope this makes up for it. And now, the Seventy Sevens:
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I am, right now, engaged in my first ever eBay auction.
I know it’s old-fashioned of me, but I’ve never been comfortable with eBay. When I buy something online, I like to know just how much it costs, and be certain that I’m going to get the item I want. Right now, I’m still hours away from closing this deal, and my bid is already up to about what I want to spend, and I know I’m going to have to take an hour out of my day and continuously check to see if I’ve been outbid. It’s nerve-wracking.
There are very few bands that would drive me to eBay to acquire their out-of-print work. The one that finally got me there was the Seventy Sevens. I’ve been eyeing their 123 boxset for years – it collects their first three albums, from the early ‘80s, including their extraordinary self-titled third record, and I’ve seen this box go for well more than a hundred dollars before. But I’ve come to the conclusion that these three albums will never be re-released, and I won’t get this box for less than $50, so this time, I’m willing to pay.
Who are the Seventy Sevens and why would I pay so much for their music? Would it be too much to say they’re one of the best rock bands in the world? I hope not.
I’ve been a Sevens fan for more than 15 years. They’ve been playing for more than 20, and in that time, they’ve amassed a consistently rewarding and unjustifiably ignored catalog of rock-pop-blues goodness. Most of that catalog is out of print and unavailable now – hence my eBay frustration – and it’s a damn shame that so few people will ever hear albums like Sticks and Stones and Pray Naked. Hell, their awesome live album Eighty-Eight has been released twice, and both pressings are out of print now.
You are lucky, though, because the Seventy Sevens have just released one of their finest efforts, called Holy Ghost Building. And you can buy that one right now. Let me tell you why you should.
I’ve said this before, but there are only a couple of guitar players that unfailingly move me. One of them is Mike Roe, the leader of the Seventy Sevens – I can listen to his work over and over, on endless repeat for days, and not be bored. The tone of Roe’s work shifts constantly, from the blues-rock of the Sevens to his folksier solo stuff, to his country-fied stints with the Lost Dogs, to the instrumental space-rock of his collaborations with bassist Mark Harmon. But at the center of all of that is his shimmering guitar work, sometimes clean, sometimes dirty, always amazing.
Roe’s been the one constant throughout the Sevens’ career. About 13 years ago, he pared the band down to a powerhouse trio, with Harmon on the bass and Bruce Spencer on drums, and from that point on, they’ve been a tightly focused unit. Roe kicks his heels up with the Lost Dogs, and shows off his gentle side on his solo work, but with the Sevens, he rocks, and rocks hard.
It’s been seven years since the band’s last full-length album, A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows, and in hindsight, that one wasn’t their best work. I liked it – it’s summery and bright and heavy, but it’s missing some essential element that would have tied it all together. It turns out, that element was a sense of history. The best Seventy Sevens material springs from a deeper well, one that taps into rivers of blues and gospel and bluegrass. Their best work has always nodded towards American spiritual music, and the further they get away from that – see “U R Trippin,” on Golden Field – the less successful they are.
Holy Ghost Building is the album on which the Sevens embrace that sense of history, that deep and tangled root system that feeds their souls. On the surface, it’s just a collection of covers, old gospel and bluegrass songs. But one listen through makes it clear – this is nothing less than a new identity for the Seventy Sevens, a set of new priorities played out before your ears. There is no Seventy Sevens studio album that captures the power of the band as well as this one does, nor one that brings to bear the band’s deep influences as well as this one.
It should have been a throwaway. Hell, it was designed as a throwaway, a three-day recording session to get the wheels spinning. But it turned out to be a great Seventy Sevens album. One of the best, in fact.
Full disclosure time – Lo-Fidelity Records paid me to write the press bio for this album, so even though it only hit the streets a week ago, I’ve been living with it for more than a month now. I agreed to the job because, hey, it’s work, but I loved doing it because this album is so good, and getting a perspective on its creation was fascinating.
Basically, Roe, Harmon and Spencer got together for three days in 2005, and jammed out 10 old tunes. They did it Elvis style – Roe would play the band his old recordings of these songs, and when they all agreed on one, they’d crank out their own arrangement in two or three takes. They then spent the next two years tweaking it, adding harmonies and production touches, so that the finished product is both raw and polished. They also wrote an original tune, “A Lifetime Without You,” to close the record, but they did that one live too – the music came spontaneously, and Roe improvised the lyrics.
It’s in circumstances like this that bands find out who they are. I don’t know if I’ve heard a purer Seventy Sevens song than their take on “I’ll Remember You, Love, In My Prayers.” The trio transforms the old bluegrass song, most famously performed by Alison Krauss and Union Station, into a blues-rock rave-up. It’s simple, it’s uncluttered, it’s perfect. And it rocks, a lot.
The Sevens find their groove early here. Things kick off with “I’m Working on a Building,” the old Bill Monroe track that lends the album its title, and while Harmon lays down this ever-shifting bed, Roe just goes to town over it, pealing off great little leads and shuffling rhythms. The band scores a home run with their take on Rev. Gary Davis’ “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” knocking the Hot Tuna version aside like a fly.
For a real taste of what this band can do, head to track five, a raw, blistering take on Fred MacDowell’s “You’re Gonna Be Sorry.” Roe whips out the slide, and injects the signature riff with such feeling, it’s palpable. The vibe on this song is awesome – it’s sloppy here and there, as Roe shifts from rhythm to lead, but it’s dusty and real and live, and will run you over like a steam train. This is the Seventy Sevens, sounding like they always should have.
The band gets more inventive as the record goes along. They turn Skip James’ spiritual blues “He’s a Mighty Good Leader” into a pretty acoustic waltz, and transform “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again” into a dead-on Elvis Presley workout. And they storm their way through “I’m Gonna Run to the City of Refuge,” a Blind Willie Johnson song Roe and Harmon had previously covered on their Fun With Sound album.
Many of these songs are about getting yourself right with God, a common theme in Roe’s work, and on this album, you get to hear just how deep the roots of that theme run with him. As he said when I interviewed him, “I need to hear these songs as much as anybody,” and if the Seventy Sevens have been writing about redemption for 20 years, then the old masters they cover here have been writing about it for much, much longer. “Stranger, Won’t You Change Your Sinful Ways,” “What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul,” “Everybody Ought to Pray Sometime” – these are songs of conviction, of rebuilding one’s spiritual connection.
So it’s odd that the album ends with its one sad love song. After a very pretty vocal bridge, “A Lifetime Without You” spins a tale of painful loneliness, another common Seventy Sevens theme. It’s a reminder of what Mike Roe has been trying to tell us for years – even though God is good, life is hard. And yet, even though life is hard, God is good. It’s a beautiful dichotomy that runs through the band’s entire catalog.
Holy Ghost Building is a pleasant surprise. When Roe first announced this project, almost three years ago, I expected a stopgap, a way station between real Seventy Sevens projects. But this is the real deal, an album of great scope and history, one that finds the Sevens becoming who they are more than almost any other record they’ve done.
The last words on the album are “I think I’ll quit now and walk away,” and if this is the last Seventy Sevens album, it’s a great way to go out. But I hope it isn’t. I hope this is just the start of a rebirth for this band – they’ve toiled in obscurity for longer than is conscionable, and they deserve to be heard. Holy Ghost Building spins these old-time spirituals into gold, and flat-out rocks while doing it, defining the band’s sound and soul. This is the Seventy Sevens, in all their glory.
Holy Ghost Building is available now from Lo-Fidelity Records. While you’re there, pick up the live album Ninety-Nine. It’s awesome too. If you want to try before you buy, hit their Myspace page, and be sure to listen to “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” (I just noticed “Unbalanced” is there too, from their 1999 EP – hear that one!) And of course, log onto 77s.com for all things Mike Roe.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to up my bid on eBay. I want that box set, dammit!
Next week, Beck and the Alarm.
See you in line Tuesday morning.