It’s no secret my musical interests run quite the gamut. On a given day I can go between The Pastels on vinyl to an LCD Soundsystem MP3. But I truly have a soft spot in my musical heart for Americana. Nine times out of ten, you can woo me with some banjo picking and an accompanying tune on the harmonica. (Don’t get me started on the saw; the instrument of the gods). It’s hard to say what about this type of music I find so appealing. Perhaps it’s growing up with classic country playing in my house as a child. Maybe it was my study on the roots of rock and roll through college. But whatever it may be, Portland’s Dana Gross has the talents and know-how to scratch my musical itch for good old fashioned bluesy sadness.
On his sophomore release We Left The Roadside, Gross expands his sound a great deal from his previous release Pirate Love Songs. Showing extensive delta blues influences, almost every song has an appealing hook that grabs a hold of your foot and gets it tapping. And don’t worry about your head bobbing either. That’s not an involuntary muscle spasm, that’s just Dana Gross’ manipulating of those steel strings getting into your nervous system. (If it persists more than one week, please see a doctor). Each song feels like a piece of classic country. I was half expecting to somehow hear June Carter’s angelic voice chime in on a few tracks. And Gross’ vocals have taken a large step forward with this release. They are an ideal blend of raspiness, heart-warming, regretful, and a slight hint of a southern slur.
Gross somehow makes every song overflow with countryside charm. The song "Roll On" sounds as if it’s coming right out of your grandparent’s Gramophone player. It has a great “ride the rails” feel which, looking like a vagrant as I sometimes do, I can appreciate. It also has some fantastic washboard playing that will have you looping the track as you pack up your bindle, put on your stovepipe hat with the top cut out and just generally aspire to be a cartoon hobo. This is in stark contrast to "Higher Ground"’s slower, subjugated tempo. Along with "Steady on the Staircase", it’s one of the moodiest tracks on We Left The Roadside. Listening to both had me imagining staring out the window on a humid, stormy southern night in quiet reflection. "Family Man" and "Hand in Hand" are two of the albums most narrative driven songs. "Family Man"’s story of missed opportunities ends with him letting us know that “Before we turn back to dust, a door opens somewhere along the way”.
The whole album is strengthened by the addition of various backing instruments. Jason Ingalls provides the drums throughout and Duane Edwards brings his talent of the upright bass. One of the most fascinating pairings is on the song "Hummingbird". Gross furiously picks away at his banjo while Amos Libby adds percussion from the tabla. Being a traditional Indian instrument, it was amazing to hear how easily the two meshed together and made me hope for more unforeseen pairings on future releases.
It’s hard to not highly recommend giving D. Gross a listen. Fans of Justin Townes Earle, The Felice Brothers and delta blues musicians like Junior Kimbrough or R.L. Burnside should really enjoy this slice of Americana from the great state of Maine. And if you happen to be up in Portland, Maine at any point, D. Gross plays alongside the remarkable Piedmont guitarist Samuel James almost every 1st and 3rd Thursday each month at Blue on Congress Street. In fact, how about an exchange? You guys come on over to New England, and I’ll plan a trip out to the Midwest to take in some of your great musicians. Deal? Deal.