Rock band Supersonic Blues Machine functions under the basic principle that when the Devil taught Robert Johnson how to play the blues in exchange for his immortal soul, the medium was already fairly well developed, and by the time we were introduced as a population to John Lee Hooker, no more evolution was necessary. Through this lens, Stevie Ray Vaughn and ZZ Top sort of become the final prophets, the last Testament of blues rock who kept the root genre pure, even differentiating it from the very minor tweaks embedded by either rockabilly or the British or both.
It makes sense then, that Billy Gibbons appears as one of many guests on the band’s debut record “West of Flushing, South of Frisco” not in a torch passing (because no one believes ZZ Top to be done,) but in a show of solidarity with the very idea that blues rock needn’t have ever made any adjustments. Gibbons’ endorsement of Supersonic Blues Machine proves the band’s proper chops to handle this aging but revered and weighty genre with proper care and admiration.
Nowhere is this craftsmanship more apparent than in the smile-inducing, easy singalong of “Remedy,” (featuring Warren Haynes!) an old-school swinging rock anthem backed by a big chorus and a simple hook that both embraces the listener and reminds them of yesteryear. There’s some Doobie Brothers in the mix here, but Supersonic Blues Machine still manages to sound fresh, creating a sound that is inimitably their own.
Not to be outdone, we’re then treated to the two song set of “Bone Bucket Blues” and “Let It Be,” both the kind of up-tempo, finger-snapping singalongs that have floated this particular musical idiom for roughly sixty years. The former even contains a brief throwback to Hooker’s timeless classic “Boom Boom,” sewn into the seams of a song that moves and bounces. The latter is a slow burn; a deep groove that relies heavily on the soulful tones of traditional blues to make to an impacting statement. It’s two different interpretations of the lessons of blues rock, both equally vital to the greater story of How We Got Here.
The bothersome detail of Supersonic Blues Machine lies partly in a fault of the name of the band. That is to say, the music experienced on “West of Flushing, South of Frisco” is a lot of things, but ‘Supersonic’ isn’t among them. It’s similar to when hearing of the band Megaton Leviathan and then discovering that it’s an atmospheric band that doesn’t really play notes (sorry, that’s a cheap dig at a band not here to defend themselves.) Anyway, the music here doesn’t necessarily need to be blistering for it to be successful or achieve its goal, but a little more urgency might have roughed up the edges just a smidge (technical term.) The lead-up of “Running Whiskey” is soulful and great, but the chorus comes across flat. For an album that boasts so many guests who have this principle in their wheelhouse, it comes as some disappointment that Supersonic Blues Machine missed the lesson on payoff. Only for a short instrumental cut toward the end, “Whiskey Time,” do we really see the kind of pedal-pushing oomph that so characterizes so many of the Blues Machine’s idols.
I want to love “West of Flushing, South of Frisco” because I love all the ideas behind it and all the ideals that it stands for. All of that is perfect. The composition is really good, and the performance of the band is both consistent and tight. But as it stands, I can only bring myself to like this record, not love it. There’s some adrenaline missing in the margins that would have gone a long way.
Nevertheless, let’s not get too down. Still way more good than bad here. “West of Flushing, South of Frisco” is a really good record, and an excellent example of the undying marriage of blues and rock and roll. If you’re in the northeast and frozen solid into your home by the cold snap this weekend, warm up your beverage of choice and you could well relax the day away with this.