It’s a percussion instrument, but it looks like little more than a cigar box with a cord hanging out. Pioneered by the early bluesmen, the Stomp Box is like a kick drum with a personality that sounds like a beating heart.
Ten seconds into Guiding Me Home, the debut single from new act StompTown Revival, that heartbeat begins, undergirding acoustic guitars and a pair of singers with a curious mix of indie rock and folksy blues in their voices. That pair is Brandon Bee, a solo artist who also has over 80 production credits to his name, and Gabe Martinez, front man for critically-acclaimed band Circleslide.
Independently, Bee’s and Martinez’s past music has been compared to the likes of Arcade Fire, the Beatles, and Coldplay. From whence, then, does this new Americana blues sound emerge? Actually, it’s been there all along.
Hailing from Seattle, Bee grew up playing bluegrass and southern rock at county fairs all over the country with his family. Along the way, he mastered the slide guitar at a young age, and roots music was knit into his musical foundation. “I’ve always had a love for it,” Bee declares, “and even as I grew up and became influenced by mid-90’s Seattle grunge and indie rock, I’ve still tried to slip a slide part into almost every record I produce.”
For his part, Martinez sought out blues music wherever he could find it, which was difficult for a teenager in San Antonio, Texas. “My dad bought me one of my favorite gifts ever,” Martinez recalls, “a box set of the complete recordings of Robert Johnson. I read the liner notes and realized the majority of those songs were recorded in San Antonio. I started feeling a kinship to the blues. In fact, my dad, who was a pastor of a very conservative church, took me to see a bluesman, John Hammond Jr., play, when I was maybe 14 or 15, simply because I expressed an interest in the harmonica. That was the first instrument I learned to play.”
The two met in 2004 during a record label retreat in Washington. Shortly thereafter, Bee became an emergency fill-in for Circleslide when the band’s guitarist injured his hand. Since that time, Bee and Martinez kept in touch and gradually became aware of their mutual interest in certain obscure musical influences. Eventually, they started writing songs together, and the result was quite a bit different from their recent musical offerings.
“We wrote two songs that sounded like Americana bluesy music,” says Bee. “We’re both managed by the same guy, and he showed up and wanted to hear the songs. I was playing a dobro, Gabe was playing harmonica and acoustic guitar. Our manager loved it, and thought there was definitely something there! Hence, the birth of our new brand of music we refer to as spiritual stomp.”
“We didn’t really intend to make a record,” Martinez adds. “We were just writing for the sheer joy of it. It was spontaneous and organic, with a sense of friendship and community, like we’re hanging around the campfire together.”
The duo’s debut EP features 5 originals and a cover of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. One of the first songs written, Anthem of Love, is a surprisingly accessible worship song that immediately creates that sense of community with a celebratory sing-along chorus. Sun Will Find A Way takes it’s place alongside Leaning as a modern hymn, and even allows a bit of kick drum and snare to keep the tempo.
Rounding out the six-song set, a pair of tracks harken to some powerful progenitors. Even by its title Waiting for the Man seems to suggest Johnny Cash. What about the lyrics? Martinez explains, “We’re using the mythology of the bluesman to describe what we’re doing with the backdrop of waiting for that judgment day, the approval and presence of God to make things right.”
Finally, the melodic harmonica in Born Again will draw Neil Young comparisons, while the lyric speaks to a longing for a renewed intimacy in one’s relationship with Christ. “That original relationship sometimes gets lost when you’re on the road, traveling, setting up, tearing down, even sharing the Gospel,” Martinez notes. “You can sometimes lose your sense of why you do what you do. Anybody who’s been in any kind of relationship for a long time knows it’s good to take stock and remember why you’ve got that relationship in the first place.”
It’s a pleasure to listen to the undeniable friendship when Bee and Martinez chat. Brandon declares that “the heavens open up” when Gabe plays his harmonica, and Gabe recalls the fist pumps he let loose when Brandon recorded his guitar solos during Guiding Me Home. (Incidentally, those solos have taken on legendary status. Tracked only twice and played with ease in the studio, they’re complex enough that Bee now has trouble trying to replicate them live. As the band says, “there was definitely some Holy Spirit mojo going on in that room.”)
What’s also refreshing is the band’s sense of gratitude at the freedom provided by their label, Save the City Records, and the seemingly perfect timing for this venture. Martinez says, “We have to be grateful for people like Mumford & Sons, the Civil Wars, Jack White, and others who are breaking ground again and allowing people to hear this type of music. It was less accepted, and now it’s accepted. And to their credit, our label has said, ‘This is the music you guys make, so go for it.’”
There’s something new about StompTown Revival, and much that might be unexpected for a particular pair of fan bases. But there’s also something old about their sound that feels quite comfortable on a vinyl record player. So while it’s certainly something different for Brandon Bee and Gabe Martinez, it’s somehow fitting to know that, like the songs themselves, the roots run very deep.