Live Review

A Journey of Transformation: Kev Wright and The Snake Oil Company

Kev Wright on January 20, 2017

The magic of the artist is often transformational. He takes the ordinary and alchemizes it into something transcendent. On Friday, January 20, singer/songwriter Kev Wright, and his new band The Journey Road Grit and Gravel Snake Oil Company, gathered the substance of their setting – The Chicago St. Pub in Joliet, Illinois – and used it to create an intimate cathedral of musical and emotional exploration.

Wright wrote the songs on his debut solo record, Journey Road, over his diverse traverses through a long life, full of triumph and tragedy, pleasure and pain. With the initial inspiration of his grandfather’s guidance and wisdom, he invented songs of tribute – “Twenty Pound Hammer,” about his grandfather’s tough years working on the railroad, the title track, about the sustainable insight he gained from his grandfather’s gentle and love-animated instruction. The rest of the songs showcase Wright as storyteller – amplifying the tales of prisoners writing home, songwriters in search of fame, Irish widowers, and many others, with an effectual and evocative vocal delivery. Wright sings with the steadiness and power of a veteran who has honed his natural instrument over years of performing in rock, blues, and folk bands, but at once maintains the poignancy and hospitality of a quiet conversation.

Journey Road is as musically diverse, as it is lyrically varied. “Worried Mind” sounds like a rollicking outtake from Sun Studio, “Crashing From the Sky” is a wistful and melancholy, Americana ballad, and “Tremblin,’” feels like the chill to the bone blues of Son House. The songs give colorful demonstration of the full range of roots music, Wright’s talent, and music as a means to navigate variety of emotion.

After nearly a one year delay, Wright has finally assembled a band to give live airing of his inventions. Their debut performance proves that it was worth the wait.

On the bass is Tom Maslowski, a Chicagoland vet who has played with John Condron among others. His subtle notes provide an energetic uplift to Wright’s compositions, but at other times, he lays the foundation for a rhythmic resonance of sweet, but sad musical offering. Nicollete Giblin, on harmony vocals, brings tender beauty to the presentation; her voice soft, but intense in its gorgeous compliment of Wright’s dramatic lead. Their voices suit one another like silk and stone, while the emotive contrast is striking in its precision, clarity, and careful provocation of the listener’s spirit.

Kev Wright has many years of experience on the lead guitar. So, it might seem curious that he plays rhythm with his new band. He plays it with the same Rolling Stones abandon he brought to his earlier rock outfits, giving the Journey Road songs a surprisingly aggressive energy. For lead, Wright found a wizard whose trick bag is bottomless. Steve Haberichter shuffled through guitar, mandolin, slide, banjo, and probably a few stringed instruments he has invented to put on a dazzling display of virtuosity, every solo full of breathtaking dynamism. At the same time, he knew how to control his playing and picking so that it complemented, rather than competed, with the material. Haberichter was emblematic of the entire band, as they played with great technical mastery, but also palpable passion. Together the entire unit performs with a rich combination of soul, avidity, and depth.

At key moments, Wright told the crowd the stories behind the songs, giving demonstration to how life informs art. Art also informs life, however, and the universe that the Snake Oil Company constructed is one of sincerity and beauty.

Crucial to their architecture was the blues rocker, “Someone Else,” – featuring the sexual rhythm of up tempo blues guitar interchanges, and Wright’s angry, but tongue-in-cheek vocal delivery. “Crashing From the Sky” transported the audience onto a foreign plane, possessing the same capacity for quiet, stealthy emotional movement as Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.” “This Place,” a song about a despondent old man in a barroom warning a young patron to avoid making the same devastating errors he committed decades earlier, gave reminder to the roots mastery of John Mellencamp’s Big Daddy.

“Ol’ Black Dog,” Wright’s tearful lament of his recently passed canine friend,” improved over its original version. The band played it down tempo, and Wright shared lead vocals with Giblin. As a duet, the song became even more moving.

For “Tremblin,’” the band left the stage, following Wright’s instruction to them to get a drink, and he played and sang it through a harmonica without any additional accompaniment. Wright’s exorcism of blues demons shot through the room to shake the bones in the bodies in front of the stage.

The two sets, featuring only three covers, most enjoyably a raucous rendition of Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl,” had harmonic cohesion that never fractured.

By the end of the evening, The Journey Road Grit and Gravel Snake Oil Company put on exhibition of the power and profundity of roots music, Wright’s writing, and their own abilities to summon the artistic means of transformation.

David Masciotra is the author of Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and Metallica (a 33 1/3 book from Bloomsbury Publishers). He is currently at work on the forthcoming, Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing).