Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: The Great American Robber Barons - Reno Nevada...and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice, and Betrayal

Sometimes the darkest tragedies lead to some of the brightest art.

And when San Francisco-based musician Keith Dion’s parents both suddenly died while living in Reno, NV, the artist channeled those experiences into his music. “Their deaths made me face a lot of stuff, and I keep peeling back the layers and finding these dark aspects inside of me,” Keith says. “Every song on the album is about gambling, vice and betrayal, and we really mean it.”

Dion was no newcomer to the music scene, having worn hats as diverse as musician, producer, songwriter, and filmmaker, performing with groups such as “New Zealand’s classic cult band The Ponsonby DC’s, as well as San Francisco alternative groups The Ophelias, 3:05 AM, and Corsica.” In addition, he’s shared the stage and recorded with “members of The Kinks, Thin Lizzy, Santana, The Counting Crows, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, and The Mahavishnu Orchestra,” among others.

Harnessing those dark moments led Dion to the formation of The Great American Robber Barons, a collaboration with former Jefferson Starship lead vocalist Diana Mangano, and the recording of Reno Nevada…and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice, and Betrayal. With Dion handling the musical arrangements and Mangano holding the vocal reins, the duo set forth to create a full-on multimedia experience, packaging the album as a CD/DVD package. The DVD purports to use “imagery from the fading glamour of Reno, and the dark underbelly of the 1960s and the Vietnam War,” coming across as “harrowing and
bluntly truthful, spanning Tijuana bullfights, real Vietnam battlefield footage, and the decaying elegance of the American dream.” In addition, the DVD also features footage of Dion’s early days playing with other bands.

But the music is the star here and, joined by such solid backing as Prairie Prince, who’s worked with artists such as Chris Isaak, Todd Rundgren, and Tom Waits on drums and contemporary jazz wunderkind, Ricardo Scales, offering up gorgeous piano licks, the table is set for a dark and wild ride. And what a ride it is; sixteen tracks in all that span themes that range from both social and political realms, engaging ideas like women’s rights, gun control, animal rights, and more. It’s a whirlwind of concepts all tied up in an eclectic folk-based package.

The sound of the record is somewhat out of time, ebbing and flowing across the years with a sound that is at once familiar and at others, well, completely other. Opening up with a somewhat dated sounding arrangement, “At the Hands of the Robber Barons” Dion’s plucky guitar recalling elements of the 70’s, while “Nowhere Left to Go” provides something altogether different in an acoustic jazz flow.

Colorful piano tones and Dion’s spoken word vocals, a trait that informs several of these tracks, give a rakish and enjoyable flair to “Shut Up and Deal” while there’s a frenetic, almost too loose vibe to “Hoo Hoo Man.” “Nobody Saw It Coming” is a fine blending of the two stars, Mangano showing off killer vocals, a highlight of which she manages on “Reno NV” and Dion’s almost playful spoken word delivery. “Last Tango in Ponsonby” almost sounds like a pirate chantey, the acoustic guitar holding sway while “Too Big For Your Boots” carries those acoustic tones another direction, Dion doing a bit more actual singing in tandem with Mangano.

If there’s one criticism to be leveled here, it’s that perhaps the Barons shot a bit too far in the scope of this project. Sixteen songs is quite an undertaking for both the artist and the listener and, while the variety and expression is appreciated, one wonders if perhaps there couldn’t have existed a set of even better songs had the band trimmed just a little in terms of the song list and focused in a bit more on the remaining.

Yet, even with those issues addressed, The Great American Robber Barons have created an album that is a compelling listen. Granted, it won’t appeal to all listeners nor is it intended to. But for those with an ear for compelling, if eclectic, musicianship, soulful vocals, and a unique view of life, Reno Nevada…and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice, and Betrayal is what you’ve been waiting for.

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