Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Stevie Tombstone - "Devils Game" (Saustex 2007)

Stevie Tombstone has been kicking around, largely underappreciated, for more than 20 years. His seminal Atlanta, GA based "swampabilly" outfit The Tombstones made a few deserved waves in the late 1980's and have resurfaced sporadically through the present day. In between these reunions he's been turning out some damn impressive solo efforts, and Devils Game is a nice overview of his early years as a solo artist.

Devils Game is a compendium of Tombstone's now difficult to find 1999 release Second Hand Sin, three acoustic versions of Tombstones songs, released in 2000 as Acoustica, recorded live at at the Atlanta Tattoo Arts Festival, and a few alternate song versions, compilation contributions and other odds and ends to finish things off. While this description may give the impression that this record is disjointed, nothing could be farther from the truth. If anything this packaging illustrates Tombstone's sonic consistency and his ability as a songwriter.

What springs immediately to mind upon listening to Devils Game is Tombstone's vocal similarity to Jason and the Scorchers' Jason Ringenberg, although the style and themes differ considerably. These two artists may be mining the same mountain, but they've struck very different veins. It's a credit to Second Hand Sin's producer, Scorchers bassist Jeff Johnson, that he didn't succumb to what must have been a temptation to influence these songs in a Scorchers direction and instead created a sound that complements Tombstone's melancholic, cautionary tales and murder songs.

This part of the record is characterized by booming acoustic guitars backed with fuzzy electrics, slide guitar and pedal steel, all overlaid with Tombstone's by turns weary and passionate vocals. A couple of departures arrive with "Same Old Tune", a straight up country tune, and "'Til the Day I Die", a loping country prison/murder song complete with sawing violin. While these two may jump out the most, all of the Second Hand Sin songs stand on their own legs. The different story each has to tell and the subtle variations in instrumentation make for a very satisfying listen.

As mentioned above, the Acoustica part of the record was recorded live. I'm not given to appreciating live recordings, but Acoustica works for me on two levels. First is the remarkable sonic similarity to the Second Hand Sin tracks - clean up the audio slightly and get rid of the crowd noise and these three tracks could have easily been the last three on Second Hand Sin. Second, the songs here are acoustic reworkings of three of The Tombstones songs, featuring Stevie Tombstone on acoutic guitar and vocals accompanied by Tony Fox on sax and violin. It's really very entertaining hearing these songs performed this way and the the fact that they work as well as they do is a testament to Tombstone's ability.

The bonus tracks that finish off Devils Game are a pleasant surprise in an era when bonus tracks tend to be second rate studio outtakes and poor recordings of songs that didn't work. The first is a Stonesy rock alternative take of "Same Old Tune" which has every bit as much going for it as the countrified album version. "Folsom Prison Blues" is a servicable take on the Johnny Cash classic, from the Dear Johnny tribute record, which surely brought a smile to The Man in Black's face. You get "So God Damned Lonely", which is a straight up country rock/cowpunk rumbler very much in the Jason and the Scorchers tradition. "Old Wedding Ring" is a dark, powerful rumination on a failed relationship that might be the best on the record. Finally, you reach the closer, "Christmas on Red River", a blue-collar take on the ugly side of Christmas that wouldn't have been out of place on one of Waylon Jennings late 70's releases.

Hickoids frontman Jeff Smith's Saustex label is doing a hell of a job getting deserving records out there that have been lost in the shuffle, and promoting the artists responsible for same in their current endeavors. Stevie Tombstone is an excellent example, and Devils Game is well worth picking up both for those unfamiliar with his work and for fans who have been hopefully waiting to see this material released on CD.

You can find Devils Game, Stevie Tombstone's other work (solo and with The Tombstones), and a ton of other cool stuff at http://www.saustexmedia.com/.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

1 comment:

Elvis said...

Equally as brilliant as The Tombstones were. Music is a family tradition with his bloodline. I love all of his work and wish him the absolute best. Wish he was still here in Atlanta.