As a lifelong rock ’n’ roller and blues fan, I’ve lamented the steep decline in the popularity of rock music in recent years, particularly among musicians. In 2017 The Guardian reported that hip-hop and R&B had overtaken rock as “the biggest music genre in the US.” For the first time in its 19-year history, the Coachella music festival didn’t feature a single rock artist! Only two of that year’s top 10 bestselling albums were rock. But if recent recordings by the Aris Paul Band and Dustin Arbuckle and the Damnations are any indication, it seems that rock hasn’t died, it’s just returned to its cradle—the blues. Many of the review CDs I’ve received from blues promoter Frank Roszak hearken back to what Mott the Hoople appropriately called “the golden age of rock ’n’ roll.” Although the popular buzzword among contemporary musicians is “genre bending,” it’s too easy to forget that the ’60s and ’70s led the way in blues-rock innovation. It’s there the mold was first set and immediately broken open. So it’s wonderful to this ageing music fan’s ears to hear modern players returning to this deep well of inspiration.
Dustin Arbuckle and the Damnations (great band name!) do an excellent job of mining this tradition while stamping their unique voice on it on their first full-length album, My Getaway. Singer Arbuckle has a rich, resonant voice and his harmonica glows with the honey-rich tone of the late great Paul Butterfield. On songs like “Across the Desert” there’s even a blues howl refrain reminiscent of John Lee Hooker. “Daniel Fought a Lion” is a more mid-tempo piece guided by Brandon Hudspeth’s crystalline guitar, with a melody that’s original and instantly memorable. “Say My Name” is propelled by reverb-drenched, beautifully tasteful guitar, Arbuckle’s eloquent blues harp, and inventive rolling thunder from drummer Kendall Newby. Back in the golden days of rock its catchy chorus would have propelled it to the top of the charts. And that’s saying a lot these days, when it seems the store of memorable melodies has become a shop of empty shelves. There’s still no shortage of top-drawer musicianship out there, but too many seem to have lost the knack of coming up with a great hook. Arbuckle & Co. are here to show a new generation how it can be done with flair and originality.
Philadelphia rockers Aris Paul Band are another refreshing take on an old theme with their new album Ghosts. The band describes their sound as “red-eyed road rock,” which sums it up well. Paul’s voice has a unique timbre—one of those voices like Arbuckle’s that was born to sing. But I won’t make comparisons here in hopes you’ll just give the band a listen. Paul’s guitar throughout Ghosts has the consistently overdriven, “dirty” tone I favour that leans more toward a Gibson Les Paul sound than the tonal clarity of a Fender Stratocaster. Arguably, it comes down to the difference between Gibson’s humbucking pickups and Fender’s single coil pickups. The title track has an R&B revue groove augmented by The Soulville Horns and saxophone by Phil Brontz, spiced by a stinging guitar solo. Brontz adds a soulful touch to “Headlights,” with its rhythmic shifts from lounging to loping tempos. “Burn” is especially powerful—it hits the ground running with a blistering guitar riff and demonstrates Paul’s tonal shadings as he alternates between plucked notes, searing solos and power chords.
According to the band’s bio, their music spans “funk to country, hard rock to blues,” with “the gypsy soul of the Allman Bros., the blues swagger of Freddie King, the rowdy rock ’n’ roll of the Stones, and the heavy metal roar of Hendrix and Sabbath.” Aris Paul was born into a family steeped in the blues-rock tradition, his father Paul Pantelas “a lifelong musician and touring guitarist throughout the 1970s and 1980s.” Pantelas and brother George opened “one of Pittsburgh’s hottest blues bars” on the city’s Southside, featuring Koko Taylor, Junior Wells, and Billy Price, among others. Aris Paul is determined to remain as much a fixture of the Southside sound as his father—carrying the torch for another generation. Collaborators Aaron Wagner on drums and vocals, Matt Scott on bass and Keith Quinn on organ and vocals seem to have crystallized the sound Paul had been working on for years.
“You won’t find two better musicians in Pittsburgh…they are the real deal,” says Paul. “With those boys, we all play on a separate but connected plane. Like three chemists running around a laboratory, there’s a beautiful chaos to it…and there’s nothing better than a rock show…” Amen to that!
Back in rock’s heyday, I’d never have dreamed that The Who’s “Long Live Rock,” or Neil Young’s “Hey, Hey, My, My” (“rock and roll will never die”) could one day become an epitaph. If you’d have told me then that hip-hop would become the new dominant pop music form I would have just laughed. So God bless artists like the Aris Paul Band and Dustin Arbuckle and The Damnations for turning it back into what it was always meant to be—a rallying cry! And a journey full circle back to the blues roots of rock, or what Eric Clapton called “back to the cradle.”
ARTIST WEBSITES: Aris Paul Band: https://www.arispaulband.com/
Dustin Arbuckle and the Damnations: https://www.dustinarbuckledamnations.com/
 “Hip-hop and R&B overtake rock as biggest music genre in US,” The Guardian, January 5, 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jan/05/hip-hop-and-rb-overtake-rock-as-biggest-music-genre-in-us