Local Wire

Listen to Tempe Band Grievous Angels' Take on No Depression-Style Alt-Country

Every Wednesday is Heritage Hump Day! That's because every Wednesday from now to the end of the year or before someone really big 
stops us, Heritage Hump Records (a temporary subsidiary of Onus Records) and New Times will be bringing you a limited edition collector's item of a much beloved Phoenix band that only sounds like it walked the scorched earth of Arizona before or shortly after the year 2000 A.D. We will honor that band with a commemorative digital single that you, the digital public, will have a limited time to download to your computers and smart phones before this single gets marked up to an exorbitant price as determined by the mp3 collector community. When that happens, a new Heritage Hump subject will be chosen and the free-for-a-limited-time-only cycle begins anew.

This week, we celebrate the music and career arc of Grievous Angels, a Tempe-based group that accrued lots of respect and attention on a national level but comparatively seemed like a sore pimple in its hometown. The fact that they named their unapologetic bluegrass side project Ned Beatty and the Inbreds should give you some idea of how much they learned to relish their outsider status in this city.

When I profiled them in 1998 ("Honky-Tonk Angels"), the Chicago roots record label Bloodshot Records had just released the group's third CD, which had pre-sales of 1,500, which is more than Robin Thicke's last album sold in all of Scandinavia.

"We just played Portland for North by Northwest, and it was packed out into the street. There were people singing our songs. The same with New Yorkers, too," says Dan before remarking, "we've never really conquered this town."

As the band's chief writers, Dan (Henzerling) and Russ (Redface a.k.a. Earl C. Whitehead) mask a fatalistic world view behind a sunny disposition with the same skill that John Fogerty employed on "Bad Moon Rising." And like the Louvin Brothers, the Grievous Angels sound happiest ruminating over the wages of sin, a cockeyed optimism only betrayed by the occasional tremor in Russ' voice.

"If we were playing a song that was all serious or moody, people would say that's a bunch of bullshit," suggests Whitehead. "People can point out all the stupid-ass things we've done out in public, like the time Jesse painted his ass blue in Prescott, and say, 'These guys aren't like that at all.'"

Interestingly, in that same article, pedal steel player Jon Rauhouse, who went on to play with Neko Case, John Doe, Jakob Dylan, Old 97's, Visqueen, Calexico, and Giant Sand, among others, ruminated over what bands that fell under the "No Depression" tag — a term sometimes used as a synonym for alt-country, after a lyric from an Uncle Tupelo song, as well as the name of a magazine — could expect.

"We're not depressed enough for No Depression," Rauhouse jokes before turning serious. "They had us in their magazine a few times. No Depression magazine and those people only go back to Uncle Tupelo. Before that there was the Marshall Tucker Band, Jerry Jeff Walker, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, the Flying Burrito Brothers. All these bands did the same thing of adding the country and rock together and toured it. And it only got to a certain level, like this is only getting to a certain level."
That discernible glass ceiling appears to be a factor in the band packing it in before launching into the 21st century. Bloodshot Records (whom Rauhouse still records for) clearly has a soft spot for one of its earliest signings. On its Grievous Angels profile (the band's Bloodshot output is still available on iTunes), the band's dissolution is attributed to an "cultural indifference, permanent van breakdowns, starvation, and a need to pay the rent . . . Yet the Eagles continues to make a living — there is no justice."

You be the judge if these were ahead of the curve or not with this week's Heritage Hump single, taken from the band's first album New City of Sin, which wasn't the Grievous Angels song that actually went to number eight in Norway.

But it could have.

Henzerling, who later went on to play with Gin Blossoms' Robin Wilson in Gas Giants and now lives in San Francisco, chose this song as the one that catches the band at its shuffling best.

"This barn-burner, written by [bassist] Mickey Ferrell, has all the best Grievous stuff in it," he says. "Sick train beat, tasty interplay between lead guitar and pedal steel, and a fun breakdown toward the end before winding up wonderfully derailed."
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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic