By Michael Lello
What if your classic rock station started playing new songs one day? Raw, bluesy, ballsy stuff in the tradition of Led Zeppelin, Free and Mountain?
Well, don’t hold your breath. But luckily there is a relatively new band which since 2006 has been releasing ferocious throwbacks, powerful rock songs played with a spirit and force that trumps the garden variety revival acts that litter the hard rock freeway. And with “Live Rain,” that band, California’s Howlin’ Rain, delivers a remarkably visceral and at times virtuosic performance, equal parts grit and grace, which fans of any strain of harder rock music would be well-advised to hear.
Recorded at various stops on the 2012 tour in support of the “Russian Wilds” LP, “Live Rain” nonetheless feels and flows like one concert, kicking off with the monster chords of “Phantom In The Valley.” Ethan Miller makes his presence as both a vocalist and guitarist known from the top, and at nearly nine minutes long, the song is a mini epic; after a bridge, there’s full-throated guitar, bass and drums, Miller’s powerful lead vocals then, guitar-shred city. It’s easy to picture a weed smoke-filled arena populated by shaggy-haired dudes feeling up their braless lady friends.
The nine-song album is relatively top-heavy, as the best songs are arguably “Self-Made Man” and “Can’t Satisfy Me Now,” which fall second and third, respectively. “Self-Made Man” springs from a quicksilver Allman Brothers Band guitar solo which precedes a fluid wah-wah run. A more delicate and exploratory segment unfurls, but as the rhythm section gains steam, so do the guitars, as Miller and Isaiah Mitchell’s twin leads chase the heavens, calling to mind Duane Allman and Dickey Betts doing the same at the Fillmore nearly 45 years ago.
“Satisfy” is a power ballad in the groove/blues tradition of early, pre-hair metal Whitesnake, when David Coverdale was fresh off his Deep Purple membership. The chorus is wide and deep, with Miller filling every nook with power and nuance. The song would still be a radio staple if it was released in the 1970s.
The songs on “Live Rain” are long – only two clock in under the 6-minute mark – giving Miller, Mitchell, Cyrus Comiskey (bass) and Raj Ojha (drums) plenty of room to breathe and stretch, but the band never falls into wankery.
The record proceeds with “Beneath Wild Wings,” which is boogie rock with a driving chorus, “Lord Have Mercy,” which is introduced by a Crazy Horse-meets-Pink Floyd motif and “Dancers At The End Of Time,” another hard-charging rock number.
“Calling Lighting Pt. 2” is, like every song on “Live Rain,” a guitar-rock song, but it engages some dynamic movement, with drum and bass getting a workout before the six-strings creep back then unspool into a shimmering tangle of riffs, reminiscent of “A Farewell To Kings”-era Alex Lifeson looseness.
With all of the instrumental heft, let’s not forget Miller’s soulful, powerful vocals that fit his band’s music perfectly. You can use any track on the live album to back up that sentiment; he holds his own with Paul Rodgers, the aforementioned Coverdale and their peers in their respective vocal primes, and with his mates, takes the ’70s boogie rock blueprint to a fun and exciting place.