Churchwood: The Beefheart of the Blues

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 05.02.13 in Spotlights

Churchwood is a blues-rock quintet hailing from Austin, Texas; Churchwood 2, their second album, was released in February of this year, and makes them sound both more and less like a blues band than their 2011 debut Churchwood. Austin, at this point, thinks of itself as the blues capital of the world, or at least the white blues capital of the world, but you’ll not be hearing Churchwood among the usual cavalcade of Austin blues bands. This band does not play “tasty” licks in honor of the great blues originals; this band is — or, rather, appears to be — anarchistic, as well as deranged, abrasive, eerie, feral, maniacal and stunningly literate. There’s certainly nothing else like them on that vaunted Austin scene, and very little else like them in the rest of the world. But they are among the most legit blues-rock bands out there. How so? Let us count the ways.

They clearly know the blues masters well, but their most obvious inspiration is the Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band that in 1972 released Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, the two “accessible” albums that preceded Beefheart’s hapless attempt to “go commercial” with Unconditionally Guaranteed. But despite some of the sprung rhythms, clanking guitar and singer Joe Doerr’s voice, this band doesn’t really sound that much like Beefheart; the biggest thing they took from him is the understanding that the only way most white kids can play blues credibly and keep ‘em sounding fresh is by using blues only as a taking-off point — and that having done that, you’d damn well better have something to say or you’re just wanking in the wind. Doerr was a founding member of Austin’s Leroi Brothers, a harder-than-hard-edged roots band that played every song like it was trying to stay one step ahead of the police. Churchwood has much the same approach: You can practically feel the sweat pouring out of your speakers, except it’s much thicker — swampier — than real sweat. Doerr rides it like some weird water-park attraction. His voice has Beefheart’s power and gruffness, with a little Tom Waits mixed in there too, and when he breaks into one of his versions of Howlin Wolf’s nonverbal semi-yodeling articulations he is without affectation. He sounds really cool.

Doerr quit music in the ’80s for nearly two decades to go back to college, ultimately winning his doctorate from Notre Dame and then returning to Austin to teach writing and literature at a local private college. The lyrics he writes for Churchwood are a sort of gutter poetry in which French symbolism meets American beats’ free verse, stirred up by a bit of a Screaming Jay Hawkins gross-out. He is not the type who wakes up in the morning and looks around for his shoes because he has those mean ol’ blues. On “Keels Be Damned,” he bellows, “I’m coughing bullshit through my fists/ Crossing fables off my list.” Those lines are more like the bellows of Muddy Waters in “Mannish Boy” and “Seventh Son,” Bo Diddley in “Who Do You Love.” Plus, they’ve got terrific rhythm. Don’t always rhyme, but that’s okay.

Slide guitarist Billysteve Korpi is perhaps better known for his work with the Crack Pipes, arguably Austin’s top garage band. Guitarist Bill Anderson first made his name with the local post-punk roots band Poison 13. There’s no apparent reason why they should sound as stirring as they do, because they don’t really play off each other the way you’d expect; usually it’s more like they’re both soloing at the same time but both soloes work together sublimely. Check out this interplay on the likes of the swampy “Weedeye” or the vehement “Fake This One.”

The other thing the band does to keep things interesting is change tempo several times in one song. The rhythm section doesn’t lay down a blues groove in the conventional sense; they maraud through three or so grooves in one song. That can’t help but keep things from becoming too predictable in that white blooz way. You’re never quite sure what’s coming next, but you know it’s worth sticking around to find out. Until he joined Churchwood, drummer Julien Peterson had been a bass player. But he had the notion that the drummer of this band had to be able to play just behind the behind. Not coincidentally, that’s where you’ll find all the great blues band rhythm sections, and it allows the other players to slide in and out of the groove like Chuck Berry’s cool breeze. In the case of Churchwood, it gives the other players the opening they need to take the sound wherever they wish to while still remaining anchored. And that’s what they do on this album, much more than on their first. This one marks a significant growth over their debut, while leaving plenty of room for further growth on (what will presumably be) Churchwood 3.

Nothing will ever replace the great old bluesmen, and nothing should try. Because this band in fact doesn’t try, it sounds and feels pretty good alongside them. Similar, but different, it occupies its own little niche. Most listeners will describe them as a rock band rather than a blues band, but there’s nothing saying you have to believe that.