In January 2018, after eight years of driving their mesmerising gumbo of country blues and electric roots the length and breadth of Ireland, The HardChargers’ debut album Scarecrow is released nationally – in physical and digital form – through the good auspices of Market Square Records/Proper Distribution.
Given the ease of access to technology and manufacturing, many artists, understandably, opt to record an album within two or three years of starting out as performing artists. Sometimes that can be the end of their road – all the energy and creativity spent on documenting their art.
The HardChargers have always been a ‘live band’, living the life of the road. They have, partly by circumstances, taken what might be seen as an old-school road to their first album. In retrospect, that has served them well, Scarecrow is the sound of a road-hardened unit at their peak, carefully selecting the choicest 40 minutes of material from their epic live set to bottle the magic and represent exactly what they’re about.
Lonesome Chris Todd: ‘The Scarecrow album is the essence of The HardChargers – by far the best thing we have recorded to date. It’s a vinyl-length collection of eight tracks, honed down from a three-hour set-list, and it represents exactly what we’re about. This is a souvenir for all our Irish fans and a calling card for the wider world. The HardChargers are at a crossroads – the Devil’s moved on, but that’s fine, we’re waiting for a bus to the Europe!’
Having self-released three singles and one EP before now, recorded in swift dashes into and out of studios, we found ourselves with the opportunity to record a full-length album over six intense days during the final weeks of 2016. We went into the studio with the sole intention of recording the best album we could. We feel that we not only reached those expectations but with the dedicated ‘extra mile’ attitude of the engineering team we surpassed it. The album was recorded & mixed at the well-appointed private studio of Late-Night Tony Furnell and Jude McCaffrey, and mastered by in demand mastering engineer Cormac O'Kane from Redbox Studios.
The HardChargers took the project seriously and selected eight songs – six originals and two covers – that, taken together, distil the essence of the band. They rehearsed tight ‘studio arrangements’ of some of the numbers, re-wrote and re-arranged a couple, and also invited some friends in to perform guest appearances on certain tracks. The resulting album is therefore based on in-studio trio performances with minimal overdubbing (bar some lead vocals and guest players) and is both a ‘studio album’ and a real representation of their live power.
Lonesome Chris Todd: ‘I have to take my hat off to Jude and Tony – we were quite demanding about aspects of the mixing, but they really went the extra mile to try to get it right, with some tricky elements like banjo and washboard included, this was not an easy task!. Tony was a real help in the recording process with several good ideas on the arrangements and harmonies and with his encouragement I got by far the best vocals ever captured for any of our recordings. Getting Cormac O’Kane at RedBox Studios to master the album was the icing on the cake; it’s warm and detailed with great dynamics’
Immersed in blues history, it was important to the band to represent at least a couple of the blues masters on the album. To that end, two covers are included: Muddy Waters’ pre-electric classic ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’ and Johnny Winter’s late 60s tension-builder ‘Mean Town Blues’, both of which are given a totally new dynamic and impetus by the washboard/drum combo of Richard J Hodgen, to the point where ‘Mean Town’ could easily be a different song altogether!
Part of The HardChargers’ live show is a more rustic ‘back-porch’ style set, with the inclusion of resonator guitar, washboard and ukulele bass. Scarecrow, having been recorded in a controlled environment, allowed some experimental microphone placement allowing the band to get closer to this back-porch vibe, with wholly acoustic ensemble takes on ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’ and original song, ’Jojo’. The aforementioned ‘Mean Town Blues’ takes this back-porch vibe and adds amplification to the bass and resonator for a further addition to the sonic palette on display.
At the other end of the spectrum, final track ‘No Stone Unturned’, at 11 minutes, gives a glimpse at the kind of extended, epic workouts that can be found in the latter half of a typical HardChargers set.
‘Little Too Late’ and ‘Lonesome Thread’ are hypnotic mid-paced juggernauts emphasising rhythmic and melodic power over virtuosity, while the shortest tune on the album, ‘Sometimes’ is a hyperactive ball of nervous energy resplendent with horn section blasts and a fiery Stratocaster solo that might sound as equally at home on an album by The Stranglers as it would on an album of Guitar Slim sides.
The call-to-dance ‘Charger Swing’ is perhaps the band’s most unusual track but also the most easily accessible. Beginning with a passing chord sequence reminiscent of Little Feat leading to a bright, catchy pre-war blues-inspired melody played with slide on an open-tuned Telecaster over a kind of ‘Hillbilly House’ beat complete with washboard, the tune then settles into an insistent groove with sublime bass stylings. This track also contains very satisfying multi-layered vocal harmonies and a sympathetic brass section line to enhance the main melody with solos provided on this occasion by both piano and trumpet, the total effect of which is to somehow combine Country Blues, early and modern Jazz, Gospel and West Coast Roots/Rock into something compellingly fresh.
The album’s guest players are all hugely well-regarded on the Northern Ireland live scene, with Amanda Agnew an in-demand solo artist, Sean Doone a mainstay of country-rock festival favourites No Oil Paintings, and both Scott Flanigan and Linley Hamilton serious names in Irish jazz.
Lonesome Chris Todd: ‘Maybe we’ve had to wait longer than some bands would to make an album, but it feels like it’s happened at the right time – the right band vibe, the right songs, the right studio, the right guest players, the right mastering engineer, even down to my father Johnston Todd taking the photos and Mark Case doing the design. It’s all come together with ease. I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Muir, of Market Square Records, during a sojourn in England in early 2017, whilst I was playing with Billy Boy Miskimmin’s band, and again, Peter’s support is another piece of the jigsaw that feels right. After a few years of hard graft, it’s a nice feeling when the pieces all seem to be falling into place. I hope people enjoy the music on Scarecrow – we’ve worked so hard on the music. There’s plenty more where it came from – album number two is practically just sitting there ready to be made!’
Scarecrow track list:
1. Mean Town Blues (4:28)*
2. Lonesome Thread (5:47)
3. Charger Swing (3:27)
4. I Can’t Be Satisfied (2:52)**
5. Little Too Late (6:42)
6. Jojo (3:30)
7. Sometimes (2:34)
8. No Stone Unturned (11:18)
All songs by Todd/Thompson/Hodgen and published by Maori Music except: * by McKinley Morganfield and ** by Johnny Winter.
Lonesome Chris Todd – vocals, resonator guitar, electric guitar, mandolin
Dave Thompson – bass guitar, ukulele bass
Richard J. Hodgen – drums, washboard
Amanda Agnew – backing vocals on ‘Charger Swing’
Sean Doone – banjo on ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’
Linley Hamilton – trumpets on ‘Charger Swing’ and ‘Sometimes’
Scott Flanigan – piano on ‘Charger Swing’, organ on ‘Little Too Late’ and ‘No Stone Unturned’