Omar & the Howlers,
I'm Gone
(Big Guitar, 2012)

Omar Kent Dykes, who's been heading assorted outfits called the Howlers since the mid-1970s and recording with them since 1980, trafficks in a raucous blues-soaked sound that perhaps gives American popular music more credit than it deserves. Not a whole lot of pop music can be said to bring the adjective "authentic" to mind. "Ephemeral" and "forgettable" are more like it. The music comes from nowhere and soon returns there, as nutritious and lasting as a candy bar. For his part, Dykes is serving something more like a thick steak and a big baked potato.

It's hard to believe that a few decades ago, genuinely rooted acts got played on radio and jukeboxes. They didn't exist solely on obscure blues, hillbilly and regional labels (though they were there, too); they really were part of the musical lingua franca. Not, of course, that these were field recordings by naive folk sitting on a front porch and singing into Alan Lomax's tape machine. The artists were trying to make money at it, and they wanted to be on the charts, too. But a now-vanished rural cultural experience shaped the way they heard, imagined and performed music, and even when that was applied to the marketplace, there was no masking its origins in identifiable times and places. When the instruments started electrifying in the 1940s, the result would be a sound for which America would be known and admired all over the world: hard-core big-city blues, r&b, boogie-woogie, Western swing, honkytonk, rockabilly, rock 'n' roll, and variations and fusions thereof. Even now. it can cure all that ails you, or at least cause you temporarily to forget about it.

Today, many years of cultural change and a heavily corporatized musical industry later, the explosive rhythms of city meeting country are reserved for speciality labels and the clubs and festivals that cater to tastes that have been thoroughly marginalized. Though I doubt he's getting rich at it, Dykes is among those who have kept electric-roots music alive and vital long past its sell-by date. Few do it better. His records are tough-talking but joyful, and I imagine that Omar and the band rockin' it up in their natural environment before a blissful drinkin' and dancin' bar crowd are sufficient to make one, well, howl.

I'm Gone -- gone as in "real gone," which for you kids out there translates into something between "cool" and "carried away" -- is modestly less rockin' blues-focused than a typical Howlers album, but it's yet very much in the style Dykes created and perfected. The title song, also the opening cut, is a full-tilt rockabilly workout, and from there the music veers into evocations -- if very much filtered through Dykes's distinctive sensibility; no pale imitations here -- of Robert Johnson, Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker (whose "I'm Mad Again" he masterfully covers), but also Charlie Feathers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Link Wray and Duane Eddy. With just-noted exception these are all Dykes originals, including the terrific country "Drunkard's Paradise," a mournful song done at a cheerful clip and with all the right rough edges. Actually, it brings to mind -- in both content and vocal -- a song that might have been done by David Childers, a North Carolina-based singer-songwriter (with whom, full disclosure, I've occasionally co-written) who has something of Dykes' musical sensibility, though I'm sure the resemblance is coincidental.

Fortunately, this immensely appealing album, to which I have returned an unreasonable number of times, does not announce that Dykes himself is gone in the traditional sense. I presume there is plenty more to come. If you love the sound celebrated in the Blasters' classic "American Music," you may want to know that Omar & the Howlers just seem to get better at it all the time.

music review by
Jerome Clark

21 July 2012

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