In terms of blues bands, the Rounders are the brilliant kids who give teachers fits - they color outside the lines, answer rhetorical questions and turn in the kind of work that every authority figure swears was stolen from the masters, but thorough investigation reveals it to be the work of completely original thinking based on solid knowledge. The Oklahoma City five-piece featuring singer Brian Whitten, guitarists Ryan Taylor and Michael Stone, percussionist Stu Williamson and bassist Dave Spindle apply that solid knowledge of American music to a sound that might crackle with the authenticity of a Folkways recording, but feels too alive to be a museum piece.
In 2000, a band of high-school dreamers crumpled up the template, invited Whitten and Spindle to join them in their efforts to become a true blues-based rock band, and renamed itself the Rounders. The band did not play the kind of rolling Texas Blues rock that metastasized in the wake of Stevie Ray Vaughan, but a sound filled with reverence for Delta and Chicago blues styles that thrived completely in the here and now. Six years into a career that attracted immediate and consistent praise from both the indie-rock press and the blues establishment, the Rounders follow up with their first release for Blind Pig, Wish I Had You.
Woven guitar lines and a hard shuffle beat usher in the opening song, "God Knows I'm Tryin'", setting the scene for Whitten's powerful baritone voice - a sound with an indeterminate age or provenance but possessing a surplus of emotion. This is a young band of old souls without a real stylistic home, and Wish I Had You combines country and urban blues, roots-based indie rock, and traditional country in a way only the Rounders can.
"If we had a band motto, I think it would be, 'We like to make old music sound new and new music sound old," said Taylor. "I don't know if there is a unifying thread for the songs on this album, but if there were, I think it would have to be the mixture of modern and traditional music."
And so it goes on Wish I Had You: the Rounders' talent for timelessness and their expansive musical palette keeps listeners on their toes - the electric country of "You Know Better Than That" takes side trips into Dickey Betts-style finger picking and even Eastern modalities, and the slow-burning "Through No Fault of My Own" contains elements of English blues that rev into a monstrously rocking chorus. But the Rounders do not simply combine disparate styles for the sake of showboating. Everything works, and every sound has a purpose, whether it is the railroad rhythms of "Oh My Dear Mind" or the devastating crunch of "When It's Bad."
Thanks to the Rounders' musical chemistry, the songs fit well together; they all travel the same road at varying speeds and degrees of recklessness. Williamson said that some of his favorite bands have succeeded in incorporating non-traditional elements without diverging too wildly from what makes those artists special, and the same is true of the Rounders.
"It makes your conception of what that band sounds like bigger. Once a band has an established 'sound,' it can be applied to other genres without it sounding like a stretch."
The Rounders' musical eloquence has served them well in reaching wildly different constituencies. The group competed in the International Blues Challenge at the annual W.C. Handy Awards in Memphis, but also blew away the indie-rock competition when Oklahoma City alternative rock station "The Spy" held its "Underground Talent Search." No matter if it is dyed-in-the-wool blues purists or young musical adventurers, the Rounders' music speaks to them. There is a genuine desire for something real that does not sound like a hand-me-down, and Wish I Had You is brand-new, but with classic lines.
"I think a lot of people are certainly weary of the music being passed of as blues these days," Taylor said. "We started this band in an attempt to offer an alternative to the endless supply of 'blues-rock' bands on the market. We weren't interested in using blues clichés to help promote ourselves as blues artists. I don't know that we've succeeded in this, but I believe people are becoming hungrier for this kind of approach."
- George Lang