“So what’s this band all about dude?” I ask. I had never heard of The Ragged Jubilee, not until my friend invited me to go see them.
“I don’t know man. They’re rockin’. They totally rock, dude. The singer’s like all charisma man, like Jim Morrison” says my friend, the reggae and hippie folk nut.
That description, coming from him, scared me a bit. But hey, I’m a chance-taker, I suppose. So I go to the show, throwing my apprehension for what awaits me to the wind. I meander to Downtown Brew this last Thursday night (2/4/10), and I was caught completely off guard. You see, usually when I go downtown to the local music venue, pejoratively nicknamed DTB in my opinion, it’s to hang out with friends, and on rare occasion to catch a metal show that oh-so-infrequently blows through town. Turns out every word my friend used to describe The Ragged Jubilee, comprised of members Ethan Burns on guitar and vocals, Chandler Jacob on bass, Phillip Wahl on banjo, and assorted tamborinists, percussionists and dancers, are dead on. They do rock. They do totally rock, a statement proven by the crowd’s shake-the-floor foot-stomping, yet I think what they exude eclipses their ability to rock.
So why were they cool? Swagger. Authenticity. Musically conservative at the right times, and excessive at others. Their first song (sadly I can’t remember the name) exploded with a foot-pounding rhythm and a blues guitar riff that reminded me of Back Door Man era Howlin’ Wolf playing some serious jam sessions with R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, only faster and meaner, and without losing any of the bluesy feeling they all smear around so well. And what I was really blown away by during that first song was Ethan’s voice, mean and sultry, deep and billowing, genuine and unforced, all at the same time. He sold me on the sound he was sellin’, whether it was a slow sad song, like Johanna, or a faster one like Misery.
I was put in a state of awe mostly because I didn’t know that a bunch of young white dudes could play banjo blues at such a genuine and rockin’ level, with just the slightest whiffs of bluegrass to make it all interesting. I had a smile on my face the entire time.
Their covers were great too. If I remember correctly they played some Cash (Ring of Fire), Black Keys (I Got Mine), and most effectively, Stones. From the opening riffs and slow bass rhythm of Miss You I saw a different persona fall across Ethan, and with each verse he was overtaken by it more and more. To me the persona initially reminded me of a tongue-in-cheek parody of late 60’s arena-rock-style Jagger, but then it became clear to me that Ethan was for real, that the hip sways, hand shaking, stare-at-the-ceiling-freak-outs, and incarnate blues rock feel were Ethan under the spell of the music the Rolling Stones created 30 years ago, and his Stones reverie completely suspended any disbelief I might have had. Bravo guys.