Honey Island Swamp served at small Alabama bar


Honey Island Swamp Band
The Downtown Tavern
Gadsden, Alabama
April 17, 2010 

What does you get when you cross Southern blues with the soul of James Brown, throw in a shot of deep country croon coupled with Grisman-esque mandolin and mix it all in a Bayou bowl?

The answer is Honey Island Swamp Band.


The performance they put on borders on dance incomprehensibility. One doesn’t know whether to grab his partner with an all hands left and do-si-do, boot scoot in place, or pull a classic I am hippy now watch me skip. However, what is even more baffling is the urge to simply sit back and listen and observe because the lyrical content possesses a unique level of honesty that creates a sense of reminiscence and revival. Having been named Best Emerging Artist 2009 by New Orleans’ legendary Offbeat Magazine, these guys are up and coming rapidly. And they are doing it all with stripped down instrumentation that provides a sense of authenticity that seems to be missing all too often these days.

On a sleepy night in the ever so sleepy town of Gadsden, AL, Honey Island Swamp Band pulled into a local bar, The Downtown Tavern, for a serving session of the above. The Downtown Tavern is a quaint but beautiful bar that is owned by lover of all that is jam, Shawn McCoy. The bar is brick throughout with a brass bar, comfortable booth seating, and more than its share of jam related paraphernalia. What Shawn has created is a relaxing atmosphere with low cover charges while still bringing some true talent through the humble doors. Over the past few months, the bar has hosted the likes of Perpetual Groove’s Brock Butler, Col. Bruce Hampton & The Codetalkers, Yonrico Scott Band, and Randall Bramblett. However, Gadsden has not seemed to notice as evidenced by the 25or so in attendance for the Swamp Band on Saturday night.

hisb2.jpgAt the onset, the outfit was less than impressive. They seemed to have difficulty finding their stride as they opened with the third track from their most recent studio release, Dark End of the Bar. In retrospect, had the music been more familiar, it may have served as a better opener. However, the pace quickly changed following a cover of Bob Marley’s "Bend Down Low" and the first set quickly evolved into sweaty authenticity with fervency being felt through the harmonica, mandolin, and vocals of Aaron Wilkinson while being driven by the lead guitar Chris Mule’, being aptly backed with the funky slapping of the bass by Sam Price and steadily kept between the ditches by drummer, Garland Paul.

Their proficiency was most clear as they gelled beautifully during the title track of their record, "Wishing Well." In this tune, it was as though Gospel harmonized vocals met the slide of Derek Trucks. The child that was made from the unlikely union could not have been more perfect.

The second short was short but the pace was set early with Grateful Dead cover, "Corrina." It is an old trick but still quite effective. "Play some Dead, that’ll get ‘em on their feet!" It worked for many reasons, primarily because these guys are not trying to be something they are not. The aforementioned authenticity remained completely intact and it truly was The Honey Island Swamp Band playing a Dead tune as opposed to the in vain efforts at duplication that are made habitually throughout clubs across these amber waves of grain. 

With that always beautiful sound of a trickling mandolin, the band wrapped at the standard closing time when the crowd had dwindled to even fewer than its former few. What does one take away from that? These guys come to play their heart out every night whether it is in front of thousands, hundreds, or tens. Being slotted in the coming months at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, The Hangout Beach, Music and Arts Festival in Gulf Shores, AL, and Riverbend Music Festival in Chattanooga along with a multi stop tour, it is clear that the future is bright for these New Orleanians. What a blessing to have witnessed such an intimate performance.