Supergroups have been abundant in blues and blues rock for decades, although recent outfits such as Black Country Communion and Them Crooked Vultures have carried the flame with varying degrees of success. The Rides, a trio featuring guitarists Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash (plus session legend Barry Goldberg on keyboards and a touring rhythm section), received critical plaudits for their 2013 debut album Can’t Get Enough – but these bands tend not to be long-lived, running out of creative capital faster than the members’ pedigrees would suggest. So what’s the score with album two?
On the upside, there’s a lot of astounding guitar playing. Shepherd is on his fleetest-fingered form, most notably on Riva Diva but pretty much everywhere else too, so if smoking fretboards are your thing, look no further. High-octane electric blues can definitely be had in reasonable quantities on this record – see Game On and I Need Your Lovin’ for excellent examples – but the overall flavour is mellow, perhaps due to Stills’ 71 years and counting.
In fact, Pierced Arrow is too mellow. This doesn’t mean that all the songs are ballads: only a handful qualify as such, with By My Side utilising the Zeppelin-type descending chord sequence so beloved by bluesmen, and There Was A Place an atmospheric track of genuine beauty. These songs aren’t the problem: sparsely performed and sensitively arranged, they showcase the musicians’ grasp of dynamics. No, where the album suffers is in the many bland, inoffensive blues songs that will be fine as soothing background music while you’re stuck on the M25, but which slip out of your memory as soon as you’ve heard them. Kick Out Of It, Virtual World and Mr Policeman are probably the biggest culprits.
No one is saying that The Rides’ songs need to be anarchic or rabble-rousing, but it would be nice if the they had, for want of a better word, nuts. They’re not particularly offensive, but musicians of this quality and heritage can, and should, be able to kick out the jams a little harder than they do on this album.
Two covers help to redeem Pierced Arrow, namely a plinky piano version of Willie Dixon’s 1955 blues standard My Babe, and a tasty take on Goldberg’s own I’ve Got To Use My Imagination, a song he co-wrote with the late lyricist Gerry Goffin. This became a hit in 1974 for Gladys Knight & The Pips, and was also covered by Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, whose version inspires this one. Leaving gaps for atmosphere and a platform for scintillating guitar playing, the new arrangement is the album’s high point.
The impression even the most charitable listener will take away from Pierced Arrow is that it’s something of a rich man’s folly, especially with that title, a riff on a classic American car company from the musicians’ youth. Sure, the music is pleasant, but sometimes pleasant isn’t quite enough.