Graded on a Curve:
Howlin Rain,
Under the Wheels: Live from the Coasts, Vol. 1

Hailing from Oakland, CA, Howlin Rain’s heavy-acid-jam rock suggests the last 45 years never happened. If you’ve ever gotten so drawn in by the outbound firepower of an early ’70s Grateful Dead tape that you forgot about the portabella mushrooms and tofu pups you were grilling during a late-summer weekend cookout, it suffices to say that Howlin Rain should cruise right down your boulevard. Under the Wheels: Live from the Coasts, Vol. 1, the first in a new live series, is a fine point of entry into the band’s thing, but don’t dilly dally around, as there are only 1,000 copies total in assorted color variations and handmade micro editions, all available now through Silver Current Records.

Howlin Rain is Ethan Miller (formerly of Comets on Fire) on guitar and lead singing, Dan Cervantes on guitar, Jeff McElroy on bass, and Justin Smith on drums (Smith, McElroy, and Cervantes all contribute backing vocals). They debuted with an eponymous LP on Birdman Records way back in 2006 and have released a bunch of material since, a significant portion of it capturing them in performance, so this live album series isn’t exactly a novel concept.

You see, Howlin Rain know what they do well. The studio records they’ve released over the last 13 years are all worthwhile, and a couple, like The Alligator Bride from last year, are borderline excellent, but that’s still not the same as getting on stage and letting loose in communion with a crowd that’s thoroughly focused on the occasion. And this surely reinforces the Dead comparison above, a connection Howlin Rain has openly made themselves, but it’s really only part of their overall sound.

The PR for The Alligator Bride did specifically reference Europe ’72, but that was in tandem with a mention of UK hard rockers Free. And that lines right up with a 45 they recorded back in 2012 that dished “When the Morning Comes” (from American Beauty) on the A-side and The James Gang’s “Collage” on the flip. So, we’re talking lysergic but with a powerful thrust; stretching out to over ten minutes, Under the Wheels’ instrumental opener “To the Wind” gets right in the thick of this heady-heavy mix.

I can definitely hear some Dead as the track unfolds (mainly in Miller’s Garcia-tinged leads), but there’s enough churn-thump in the rhythmic momentum to place this firmly outside the sphere of second-rate jam copyists. And in a manner similar to Endless Boogie, Howlin Rain drops clues across “To the Wind” that they’ve soaked up more than just the standard psych and hard rock stuff (let’s just say there are a few hints of the Germanic along the way).

But on the other end of the spectrum, coming in at a crisp 4:18, “Missouri” (from The Alligator Bride) is a tuneful slice of anthemic rousing that would’ve been a perfect fit on mid-’70s hard rock radio. I mean, it’s got enough of a Bad Company vibe and with a light seasoning of Allmans that it could’ve even been a modest hit single.

Reaching back to their debut, “Death Prayer in Heaven’s Orchard” continues to spotlight their way with a song, but with a nifty psych-tinged instrumental passage at the start and explosive slide work on the back end that really emphasizes the Southern rock in the band’s recipe, though some might rate the performative bombast at song’s end as being over the top.

And y’know, as it reminds me of sitting on my front porch on a Saturday night at age 14 listening to the King Biscuit Flour Hour, I can’t really argue. But there’s a sincerity to Howlin Rain’s approach that fortifies the overall appeal. There’s also range, as “Goodbye Ruby” takes an unlikely turn into soulfulness, both in Miller’s vocals and instrumentally, with the playing getting tangibly funky.

In the hard rock realm, gestures of soul-funk almost always spell disaster, but not here, as Howlin Rain avoid overdoing it and instead shift into high gear for the later portion with soaring tandem guitars magnifying the Southern rock in the equation once again. It’s all a solid lead-in to “Coming Down,” which starts out with Miller at his most tunefully testifying before the group subtly gravitate toward the jam.

McElroy sounds fine throughout Under the Wheels, but his rolling lines in “Coming Down” are a particular treat. Smith is also consistently in the pocket, and the way Cervantes and Miller intertwine their axes (and with what I perceive as a sly nod to Zep) brings everything together with consummate flair for the close. Speaking of panache, Caitlin Mattisson’s cover illustration fits the bill with gusto, perfectly articulating Howlin Rain’s aesthetic with vibrant color and sharply rendered lines. I’m really hoping her work graces Vol. 2, which is due out later this year.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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