The blues circuit has diversified considerably over the years. At blues-oriented gatherings of the 2010s, it is easy to find plenty of non-purist musicians who have been influenced by rock, soul/funk and/or jazz as much as they have been influenced by the blues. Anyone who goes to a blues festival in 2014 expecting everyone to adhere to a traditional 12-bar blues structure is likely to be disappointed. The thing to look for on today’s blues circuit is the feeling of the blues rather than a rigidly purist aesthetic, and that feeling is very much in evidence on this self-titled 2014 release by the Gravel Project.
Led by Boston-based singer, guitarist and songwriter Andrew Gravel, the Gravel Project do not pretend to be blues purists by any means. This album has as much to do with funk-rock and roots rock as it does with blues-rock, and Andrew Gravel clearly is not the type of staunch blues traditionalist who is going to make sure that everything he writes and performs has 12 bars. Nonetheless, Gravel brings a lot of blues feeling to his performances, and he favors a rootsy outlook whether he is performing original material or offering likable covers of the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie” and The Cure’s “Close to Me.” Except for those two covers, everything on this album was written or co-written by Gravel. And that includes “Lost,” “Dollar Bill” and “Soul Now” as well as “Jam Today,” “Blues for LA,” “When I Get Back Home,” “In the Moonlight,” “Not the One” and “Your Song.” The Gravel Project’s “Your Song” should not to be confused with Elton John’s 1970 smash, although there are plenty of direct or indirect influences from the 1970s on this album (including the Allman Brothers, Steve Miller, the Grateful Dead and The Band). Andrew Gravel’s material recalls a time when many blues-rockers and roots rockers were being influenced by the 1970s funk and soul they were hearing on R&B stations.
The Gravel Project’s album is fairly unpredictable. Roots rock and Americana fans can easily get into “Not the One,” “Jam Today” and the country-tinged “In the Moonlight,” while the funk/soul influence asserts itself on “Lost,” “Close to Me,” “When I Get Back Home” and the sociopolitical “Dollar Bill” (which is a commentary on greed and income inequality). “Lost,” “Close to Me,” “When I Get Back Home” and “Dollar Bill” are not funky in the totally gutbucket way that Parliament/Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, Tower of Power, the Ohio Players and the late Rick James were funky back in the 1970s, but they are funky in a way that unites rock, funk and blues elements with enjoyable, earthy results.
The Gravel Project (which Andrew Gravel founded in 2010) has had some lineup changes along the way, and the musicians who join him on this release include, among others, bassists Brad Barrett and Vaughn Braithwaite. Andrew Gravel (formerly of the band Entrain) is clearly the one in the driver’s seat: in addition to singing and writing or co-writing nine selections, he produced this album. And his production style is warm and organic rather than overly slick and processed, which is a definite plus given the rootsy, down-home approach he is going for. This album sounds well-produced, but it does not sound overproduced. Adding to that warm feeling are Bernie Grundman (who mastered the album) and John Keane (who handled the mixing in Athens, Georgia and is known for his work with the Indigo Girls and REM, among others). Grundman and Keane obviously understand where Gravel is coming from musically, and both of them do their part to give this album its natural, organic, old-school sound.
The Gravel Project is well worth hearing if one holds blues-rock, roots rock and funk-rock in equally high regard.
Review by Alex Henderson