Smells like Gourds spirit

A live Gourds show, waffles the band’s front man/mandolinist Kevin Russell, is “kind of a cross between a revival and a house party and a pep rally and a pow-wow.”

But he’s not afraid to pinpoint what, exactly, distinguishes his band from the pack.

“I think what sets us apart from all the other milquetoast alt-country acts is that we groove,” Russell wrote from Austin, Tex., in a recent e-interview with Xpress. “You can shake yer ass to our down-home s••t. We are all very oriented to rhythmic boom-shaka-laka-laka. Melody is nice, but you gotta have that beat. That is what American music has always been about: rhythm and grooves.”

During their recent show at Knoxville’s Blue Cats, the atmosphere was positively electric. Folks were roaring after every song, and the Gourds responded with three straight hours of music. Beneath the banjo, guitar, mandolin and accordion leads of Russell, Claude Bernard and Max Johnston — the three passed around instruments like a shared jar of ‘shine — lay the tight and funky swagger of bassist Jimmy Smith and drummer Keith Langford, the rock-solid rhythm section that provides the horsepower under the Gourds’ considerable drive.

For the Gourds, it’s been all about rhythm for eight years, ever since they first took their act from the living room of Jimmy Smith’s house — a tumble-down shack nicknamed the “Steamy Bowl” — and into local clubs. In short time, they were the toast of Austin, known for their energetic live shows and potent blend of country, blues, folk, swamp and rock.

The albums that followed — including Stadium Blitzer (Watermelon, 1998), Ghosts of Hallelujah (Munich, 1999) and Dem’s Good Beeble (Sugar Hill, 2000) — only cemented the band’s reputation as songwriters and musicians of merit. With a taste for the shuffles, slides and gut-bucket beats of Texas and the Gulf, the band delivered good tunes by the score. Their official motto: “Music for the Unwashed and Well-Read.” (They weren’t always the quintet you see today: Ghosts saw the succession of original drummer Charlie Llewellin by Langford; Johnston — who first gained note playing with such alt-country luminaries as Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Freakwater and his sister, Michelle Shocked — came on board two years ago.)

Despite an abundance of “good, meaty, well-built songs,” to borrow Russell’s phrase, it was a cover tune that made the Gourds’ name. That tribute — an amped-up, hillbilly-hootenanny take on Snoop Dogg’s thug-life anthem “Gin and Juice” — became an Internet sensation, traded as hotly as commemorative Elvis plates at a tri-county swap meet. (The tune, often mistakenly attributed to Phish, first appeared on the Munich EP gogityershinebox, a relative rarity until Sugar Hill recently re-released it as Shinebox.)

The drawl-heavy version made its way back to Snoop Dogg himself, who smiled and sang along in a true “is this for real?” moment (see the video at www.thegourds.com).

It’s a good cover – refreshing, and imbued with a sly country funk — but to love the Gourds for “Gin and Juice” is to miss the point. The Gourds deserve your love for other reasons; catch them live and you’ll know why.

But if you can’t wait till Saturday’s show, the just-released Cow, Fish, Fowl, or Pig (Sugar Hill) might just tide you over. As with past Gourds albums, it’s an eclectic offering, a robust and often rollicking collection of tunes summoned from all over the roots-music map. It’s as if a lifetime of influences were tossed in a cup, shaken up and thrown on the table, Big Boggle style. The resulting songs manage to expand the Gourds’ musical resume without losing a fundamental meat-and-three-sides appeal.

Songwriting credits are split, with Johnston’s straightforward ballads offering gentle counterpoint to Russell and Smith’s more-impressionistic (and often whimsical) sensibilities.

As for Russell, it’s not just what he calls Asheville’s “loud-ass good folks” that make him look forward to his imminent return. For it was in our fair city that the singer did furious battle with a particularly stubborn foe and came away the victor.

“I remember I was having a foot-stink problem with some sandals when I was there,” he recalls. “Now, sandals are not supposed to stink, are they? They have ventilation. But these things were really off the hook.

“Max, who was rooming with me at the time, had to get another room because it smelled so bad. I was able to leave those sandals in a drawer at the hotel. Asheville has a really nice shoe store that restored me to foot respectability. My feet have not been an issue since. I thank Asheville for this. I cannot go back there without thinking about this odiferous experience.”

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