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Thursday, March 11, 2004 02:31 am

Tarbox Ramblers’ fired-up blues turn despair in joy

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Tarbox Ramblers perform March 18 at Underground City Tavern

When the Tarbox Ramblers first escaped from Boston bars and ran into the national music scene several years ago, it was as if they were let out of a cage -- wary at first, scary to see, and waiting to feel free enough to pounce. They won critical acclaim with a simply stunning self-titled debut, and toured a good deal, playing prestigious festivals and hellacious honky-tonks. Their primitive fired-up blues drew intelligentsia and rednecks to the same watering hole, a hole in the human psyche where loneliness is quelled by screeching, where sadness evolves into violence and it's all played out with music.

A Fix Back East, the 2004 Ramblers release, continues in the same vein as their first record, but with the newfound freedom to attack. The first album was entirely traditional blues with many songs old enough to be in the public domain. Michael Tarbox, guitarist, vocalist, and mind behind the music, penned eight of the eleven songs on the new disc. The remaining tunes are old blues wrenched back into the wretched world of their making by the salacious caterwauling and delicious convulsions of the band. The new recording has several tracks produced by legendary Memphis music man Jim Dickinson, who likes primitive sounds, likes musicians who come to play, and likes to make good bands sound better. The remaining songs were done back home in nearby Cambridge by Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade.

Somehow Tarbox manages to pull from the wreckage of human suffering great music of extreme joy, remnants no doubt of his immersion into the ancient and primitive world of the blues. The Ramblers' live shows are remarkably inspiring, while at the same time dwelling within the despair of a tortured mankind. Hey, it's a lot of fun too. Cranky slide guitar performed on pawnshop treasures and searing vocals rasping from the throat are surrounded by melodic fiddle lines held together by a pulsing doghouse base and galloping drums. The music is as comforting as a scratchy old blanket, made comfortable not by the material, but by the memories held within its threads. Yeah, I like them. I like them a lot -- and so will you. And you just might come away thrilled with rhythm and filled with words and a better soul for the experience.

The Tarbox Ramblers roll into the Underground City Tavern, Hilton Springfield, 700 E. Adams St. at 9 p.m. Thursday, March 18, for a Sangamon Valley Roots Revival-sponsored show. The $7 tickets are available in advance at Recycled Records (522-5122) or at the door the night of the show.

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