The Salem News - Fresh Gravel

August 30th, 2012

Improvisation gives Marblehead band new sound every night

By Will Broaddus Staff Writer

---- — “Gritty” and “sophisticated” are two terms you wouldn’t normally use to describe the same thing.

But that’s how Marblehead native Andrew Gravel, 30, guitarist and lead singer of The Gravel Project, characterizes his band’s bass player, Vaughn Brathwaite.

“He’s just absolutely fantastic,” Gravel said, “one of the best bass players I’ve heard. He’s got more of a sophisticated and more gritty, funky sound. But he also has an incredible knowledge of harmony.”

“Gritty and sophisticated” would also be a fair description of The Gravel Project’s sound on their second CD, “Live at the Red Parka Pub,” which appeared this March.

The album mixes blues, funk and jazz in a musical range that includes Muddy Waters and the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and Israel Tolbert, in addition to several original songs.

Brathwaite has been playing with Gravel and drummer Dave Fox for about a year and a half now. These three, who will play tonight on Mahi Mahi Cruises in Salem Harbor, usually appear as a power trio but are sometimes joined by guitarist Brad Barrett.

When he started his band in 2010 and recorded his first CD, Gravel, who graduated from Marblehead High School in 2000, was using a different lineup. But as the musicians have changed, the band’s sound has evolved, and Gravel likes what he hears.

“I think we have a fresh, new sound,” he said. “I think the cornerstone of who we are as a band is improvisation. We might not be playing bebop, but the mentality is to create something different every night.”

This is evident on “Live at the Red Parka Pub,” which draws from two nights’ performances in Glen, N.H., and features a number of energetic guitar solos.

“It’s never the same solo every night,” Gravel said. “Even with cover songs, they are platforms for improvisations.”

The three Gravel originals on the CD, one of which was written with fellow Marbleheader Caleb Warren, also make room for some extended guitar work.

But the lyrics of “Dollar Bill,” in addition, express Gravel’s alarm over some current events: the economic meltdown of 2008 and the recession that followed.

“I joke sometimes during gigs that I thought it would be irrelevant some years later,” he said. “It was just written out of frustration for everything going on around us. Everybody was getting greedy. What are people’s priorities really about?”

If “Dollar Bill” has a clear message, “Blues for LA” sometimes misleads listeners into thinking that Gravel must really love Los Angeles.

“Everybody asks that, but it’s not about California. It’s about a girl whose initials are L.A.,” he said.

Gravel has traveled far from the North Shore for extended periods of time, but his longest trips were in the other direction from the West Coast.

“I spent two years in London,” from 2004 to 2006, he said. “There’s a really good blues scene over there, where I honed my blues repertoire and sound. I did a blues festival in the south of France and toured around Sicily with a band.”

Gravel has also studied guitar privately, with Bruce Bartlett, a professor at Berklee College of Music.

“He’s a North Shore guy,” Gravel said. “He’s an encyclopedia.”

The Gravel Project is working on another studio album now, which should be ready in early 2013. In the meantime, the band will appear in Salem, around the North Shore and in Glen, N.H., over the next few months.

“There’s definitely a crowd out there,” Gravel said, “that likes to listen to a bluesy, funky kind of thing.”