The Groundhogs - Blues Obituary

by Kevin Orton Rating:8 Release Date:2018-10-12
The Groundhogs - Blues Obituary
The Groundhogs - Blues Obituary

Unlike a lot of British bands in the 60’s Blues revival, The Groundhogs actually cut their teeth backing their heroes. Most notably, John Lee Hooker, among others. They eventually morphed into a power trio anchored by frontman and guitar virtuoso, Tony McPhee. Their debut was aptly named, Scratching the Surface. Their sophomore effort, Blues Obituary, took a decided step beyond their influences into dark, Psychedelic territory. For what he lacked in Robert Plant’s glamour or Hendrix’s flamboyance, McPhee made up for in grit and chops. As Bowie once quipped about his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, “boy could he play guitar”. And in the pantheon of guitar heroes, McPhee has not received his due if you ask me.

While they never achieved the stardom of Led Zeppelin or the Stones, The Groundhogs certainly were just as formidable. The thing about the Groundhogs was their heaviness. As evidenced on albums like Split, they were intense. What’s more, they weren’t afraid of a little doom and gloom. That’s not to say they lacked a sense of humor, but their commitment and ferocity might have been a bit much for the flower power pretensions of the Carnaby Street set that embraced the Beatles and Stones.

A welcome reissue, Blues Obituary is a bit of a time capsule. Its certainly of its era. A fitting testament to the 60’s British Blues revival. ‘B.D.D.’ kicks things off (initials standing for, Blind, Deaf, Dumb). It’s essentially a reworking of Geeshie Wiley’s mysterious, ‘Last Kind Word Blues’. More than anything, the song serves as a showcase for McPhee’s abrasive yet dazzling playing. This pretty much characterizes the rest of the album. It's more about the playing than anything else.  No one comes here for the singing or the songwriting. Its all about the guitar.

‘Daze Of The Weak’ starts off like early Led Zeppelin doing John Lee Hooker riffs and then bursts into a violent, dark workout. One that mercifully doesn’t go on for days. Showman that McPhee is, he possessed a keen sense of restraint. A hand that eschews jamming for jamming’s sake indulgence. Elsewhere, ‘Times’ is a pummeling exercise in the hypnotic.  ‘Express Man’, a heavy boogie none too far removed from the work Clapton and Hendrix were doing at the time. ‘Gasoline’ wisely defies expectations by breaking out the acoustic guitar and little else. Here, I suppose a case can be made for The Groundhogs being musical anachronists. But one could say the same of everyone else steeped in similar influences at the time. For my money, ‘Gasoline’ is more about appreciation and carrying the torch than imitation.

Neil Young has long been called the Godfather of Grunge, yet ‘Mistreated’ makes the same case for the Groundhogs. Perhaps less stellar is their ballsy stab at Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Natchez Burning’. It’s a song that relies on Wolf’s vocal intensity and prowess. One McFee can’t hope to match. And to his credit, he isn’t trying to. However, it’s the one track that doesn’t rise above its influence.

The undisputed highlight on Blues Obituary is the instrumental, ‘Light Was The Day’. And by instrumental, I mean “mental”. Here, the Groundhogs take Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark Was The Night’ on a rocket ship ride to the dark side of the moon.  And where later contemporaries like early Pink Floyd favored the flashy seventeen-minute freakout, the Groundhogs wisely keep their antics under seven minutes. Again, they weren’t about indulgence. They were all about feeling.

Ultimately, this is a Blues aficionado’s album for Blues aficionados. While the band’s initial audience are now in their 70’s, I would not hesitate to recommend this to any young whippersnapper who’s a fan of Jack White or Ty Segall.  Truly, an underrated classic.

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