Many music fans may remember Tom Gray's name from his early-1980s band the Brains. Down South, 'round the Nashville-Atlanta-Birmingham triangle, the band was a hot commodity back in the day. The Brains' self-titled debut album for Mercury Records yielded a minor college radio hit in the bittersweet "Money Changes Everything," which would later become a huge mainstream hit for Cyndi Lauper.
Staring Down The Future
After the monster success of "Money Changes Everything," Gray moved to Nashville with an eye towards becoming a country songwriter. The talented scribe soon found that a songwriter's life in the Music City is more about politics and relationships than about talent and, well, songs ... so Gray hightailed it back to Atlanta.
Gray's Nashville tenure produced one positive, however, in that it interested the artist in traditional styles of music. Meeting up with fellow guitarist Mark Johnson, the two formed Delta Moon, a blues-rock band. A number of bass players and drummers have passed through the band in the decade since, as have a pair of fine female singers. With Clear Blue Flame, Delta Moon's fourth studio album, though, Gray takes over as the band's vocalist in a move that changes the texture, but not the overall direction of Delta Moon's unique sound.
Clear Blue Flame
Gray's swampadelic guitar licks kick off the eerie "Clear Blue Flame." A laid-back yet rockin' tale of love and betrayal, "Clear Blue Flame" speaks to the heart-numbing qualities of well-made 'shine. Gray's gruff vocals and the song's overall dark vibe reminds of kudzu dropping off the cypress trees in some deep, lost corner of the South. "Stranger In My Hometown" tells of the alienation caused by "progress," a gentle rhythm supporting Gray's soulful vocals, the tune offering some delicious six-string sounds.
A wicked bad guitar lick hits your ears at the beginning of "Lap Dog," a classically-styled blues song with Maxwell Street lyrics and a Bourbon Street soundtrack. "I'm A Witness" sways and stutters back and forth, a wonky rhythm supporting Gray's testimony and some fierce slidework. The juke-joint holler "You Done Told Everybody" comes straight from the heart of the Delta, Gray and Johnson offering some tasty syncopated fretwork and Charley Patton-styled percussive rhythms beneath Gray's best Son House vocals.
"Jessie Mae" is a wonderful, heartfelt tribute to the late Mississippi Hill Country blueswoman Jessie Mae Hemphill. Gray and Johnson do this one up right, down tuning their guitars, pulling a nasty circular riff out of the Burnside songbook, and bringing it home with a steady, driving rhythm. The song tells of the triumphs and tragedies of Hemphill's life, but it could also serves as the life story of many blues musicians. The duo's playing on "Jessie Mae" is magnificent, twin guitars reaching across a smoke-filled juke-joint to grab you by the ears.
Money Changes Everything
With "Money Changes Everything," Gray covers his own song and lays waste to his past. Whereas the original 1980 Brains version displayed a power-pop edge, and Cyndi Lauper's 1984 chart-topping reading of the song carried with it a greater sense of yearning, this roosty remake of the song seems to hit the nail right on the head. Starting with a nice acoustic, Appalachian-sounding intro, Gray's voice kicks in, more strained and hoarse than on any other song here, incorporating the emotion of Lauper's version with a sorrowful acceptance.
Although the song originally spoke of the factors that influence relationships and romance, better than two decades down the road, it could also serve as Gray's life story, that of the creative wunderkind shooting his way to the top only to be dumped on when the gold rush didn't pan out as planned. By slowing down the song's pace, providing it with a sparse acoustic framework, and imbuing it with a worldly weariness, Gray has actually improved upon his already impressive original version of the song with this powerful backwoods doppelganger.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Anybody casually picking up Clear Blue Flame on the basis of Gray's long-past work, expecting to hear the power-pop of the Brains, will be sorely disappointed. The savvy music consumer, however, grabbing a copy of this - or any other Delta Moon album - just to hear the band's wonderful fusion of swamp-blues, roots-rock, and acoustic mountain music will certainly be entertained.
Tom Gray and Mark Johnson are skilled musicians, well-schooled in the nuances of the styles they're working in, and both are fine slide-guitarists. Gray has aged well as a songwriter; his tales of ordinary folks, failed romances, and hopeful losers comprise a new Southern Gothic literature worthy of the bluesmen (and women) of the 1920s and '30s. Although firmly rooted in the Delta blues and hillbilly music of the past, Delta Moon delivers with a ferocity and passion that can only be expressed in the present. (Jumping Jack Records)