Desperate times call for dazzling records. Released on Ruf in September 2016, Devon Allman’s Ride Or Die acknowledges that life on Planet Earth is no picnic. On the flipside, this third solo album from one of America’s best modern writers reminds us there’s always hope. “The world is getting crazier by the minute,” says Allman. “These songs are about pain, addiction, storms, lust, death, and feeling sometimes that you’re utterly lost. But conversely, it’s about finding your place in the universe, rebirth, strength, redemption, vindication...”
Allman has walked many roads to earn his place at the head of the Southern rock scene. Followers of the US bandleader’s thrilling two-decade career have come to expect the unexpected, from his post-millennial breakout with Honeytribe, through chart-topping hook-ups with Jack Bruce and Javier Vargas, to acclaimed solo albums like 2013’s Turquoise and 2014’s Ragged & Dirty (praised by the UK’s Blues Magazine as “reminding you why the blues can be, quite simply, the best thing in the world”).
When the vocalist/guitarist parted ways with Royal Southern Brotherhood in 2014 – having played a pivotal role in the supergroup’s all-conquering early material – there was an audible gasp around the world. Thankfully, one spin of Ride Or Die vindicates Allman’s bold step into the unknown. “I needed to have my own canvas,” he explains, “to stretch out and paint on with no rules, only my visions. Freedom in artistry is essential. Who stands behind a painter and says, ‘Hmmm, no, maybe you should use blue there, not purple’? That’s not anyone I wanna have coffee with!”
Recorded at Nashville’s Sound Stage Studios and Switchyard Studios in May, Ride Or Die found Allman in good company, with the bandleader guiding the core lineup of Tom Hambridge (drums/co-production), Tyler Stokes (guitars) and Steve Duerst (bass) – and enlisting fairydust from Ron Holloway (saxophone), Bobby Yang (strings) and Kevin McKendree (keys). With the chemistry fizzing, it’s a mix that lives, breathes and grooves, the antithesis of the cut-and-paste jobs that hold sway in the Pro Tools era.
Writing all but two of the songs – either alone or in partnership with his compadres – Allman showcases his ability to catch what it means to be human, while following his muse wherever it leads him. On songs like the thumping opening gambit “Say Your Prayers” or the brittle jab of “Galaxies”, he invests blues-rock traditions with modern attitude and smarts. “Blues was born down South,” he says, “and it’s a massive part of the culture. But blues is a very open entity in my mind.”
Beyond the blues, this is a showcase for an artist with every colour in his palette. As you’d expect from a man with a famously sprawling vinyl collection – and a tattoo of Curtis Mayfield inked on his left bicep – there are nods here to every genre and era. “This album is really about mixing all of my influences,” says Allman of the varied mood. “Soul, rock, blues, alternative and more. It’s about making an artistic statement, not about fitting into any category. I produced this album to be an eargasm of emotion.”
On a tracklisting that runs the gamut, you’ll find the upbeat, horn-bolstered soul of Find Ourselves, alongside the rueful lyric and poignant lilt of Vancouver (“If I had a time machine, if I could get back somehow, I’d change so many things, and she’d be with me now”). “Live From The Heart” is a twelve-string acoustic stunner with one eye on the apocalyptic newspaper headlines, while “Butterfly Girl” is a smitten ballad warning of a woman who’ll “seduce and hypnotise you when she enters your world”.
Sonically, too, Ride Or Die is a record that pushes the envelope, whether that’s the pumping synth line that opens the cover of The Cure’s “A Night Like This”, or the Talkbox guitar solo on Lost that supports a lyric about fading dreams. “I haven’t produced my own record since 2010’s Space Age Blues,” says Allman. “We had a blast making this record, using the Talkbox for Lost and laying down the Hendrix-inspired section on Find Ourselves.”
Some musicians are content to simply spin their wheels, rehash the hits and pick up the pay-cheque. With Ride Or Die, Devon Allman announces once again that he’s an artist on the move – and invites you to ride shotgun as he takes this career-best new album out on the road through 2016. “You can expect pleasure, pain, and energy to soothe your troubled soul,” he says. “Come take the ride...”
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Blues Music Magazine Aug 2016 (PDF)