As Howlin Rain bestrode the Tufnell Park stage last night with their special blend of spiritual psychedelia, Classic Rock was part of the congregation. Here's what the show made us think.
A man’s gotta commit
Being in Howlin Rain is hard work. Take bass player Jeff McElroy, for instance. He’s committed: spectacular mutton chops, a full beard, and a leather cowboy hat. That’s a lot of skull clobber to be wearing under a small venue’s bright lights, and he adds to this burden by sporting a weighty twin-necked bass/guitar combo throughout the show. In conditions as sweltering as these, it’s impressive, a near-heroic display of onstage stamina.
Proper beards (not those rubbish hipster ones) are good
The rest of the band are similarly hirsute. While this author’s attempts to grow facial hair make him look like someone who’s briefly buried his chin into the chest of a molting labrador (hence the unhealthy fascination with those who can do it properly), McElroy, singer Ethan Miller and guitarist Daniel Cervantes both process ragged, epic, awesome beards. Proper man-fuzz. The kind of beards worn by men who live on their own in the woods. None of this, of course, has anything to do with the music, but such chin fixtures are obviously an important part of Howlin Rain’s appeal, so it’s worth a mention.
There’s an awful lot going on
The band describe themselves as a mix of watermelon rock, psychedelic, heavy jams, mellow jams, ethereal dung, sci-fsxploitation, bong rock, and liquor store soul. Watermelon Rock, for those who don’t know, is actually a real-life rock painted to look like a watermelon. It’s located on Alameda Island near the band’s Bay Area home. Onstage, all this comes together in a series of incendiary six-string freakouts that are both righteous and riotous. Like the Stooges covering Little Feat after staying up all night with the Grateful Dead, perhaps.
Ethan Miller isn’t quite the singer we’d like him to be
With an evangelical, beseeching, straight-from-the-pulpit style, Mr Miller sets a pretty high bar for himself, and while he’s the owner of a strong, convincing voice, he doesn’t always clear it, especially when the band are operating at full-throttle. Howlin Rain would be quite extraordinary with a young John Fogerty, Otis Redding or Aloe Blacc on the mic, but that’s asking a awful lot. And besides: they’re all clean-shaven.
Howlin Rain really know how to finish a set
Having already delivered lots of swirling bombast with songs like Big Red Moon, Self Made Man and Phantom In The Valley, the band encore with a jam on Calling Lightning Part 2 that takes some time to get going, a little bit more to get to the middle, and even longer to finish up. It’s tremendously exciting, as crescendo and climax clatter and clash, and very, very long. Ethereal dung, indeed.