Muddy Ruckus might just be the most appropriately named band in Portland. A ruckus is indeed what they kick up, with music that’s a frenetic blend of blues, folk, gypsy swing, and traditional country delivered with a punky intensity that belies its rootsy origins. The muddy modifier is also appropriate; their music is down and dirty, steeped in the mud of the Mississippi delta and the Louisiana swamps, but also in the mud and grime of Woodstock and the mosh pit at an outdoor punk show. Equal parts rowdy Saturday night party and joyous Sunday morning church service, Muddy Ruckus’s self-titled debut album touches on the sacred, hints at the profane and encapsulates everything in between, all to the sound of an infectiously toe-tapping backbeat.
The first thing that leaps out at the listener upon hitting “play” on the new Muddy Ruckus record is the intriguing blend of voices. Lead vocalist/guitarist Ryan Flaherty sounds a little like Dr. John crossed with early Tom Waits. There’s a dash of Leon Redbone in there too, but with Dylan’s razor-sharp wit. Erika Stahl, equal parts June Carter Cash, Emmylou Harris and bluesy Bonnie Raitt, is a subtle vocal chameleon. Depending on the song, she can sound sassy, heartbroken, wickedly seductive, innocently angelic, tender and comforting, or any combination thereof, making her the perfect vocal foil for Flaherty. Rounding out the trio and providing back up vocals as well is Brian Durkin. His stand-up bass is the sturdy backbone of the Muddy Ruckus sound, and the main cause of the aforementioned toe-tapping.
Musically, the band’s sound is mostly acoustic, and the songs run the gamut from uptempo country stompers like opening track “Crawl On The Ceilling” (seriously, just try and sit still when listening to this one…it’s physically impossible!) to the ambling, laid-back blues of “Ruby Red” and the shuffling back porch lament of “Mother Mud” (bolstered nicely by a lilting fiddle courtesy of Phil Bloch). “Bulldozer” is an old-time country hoe-down number if ever there was one, and the jaunty “Butterfly Bullets” is pure gypsy swing delivered with a bluesy swagger. “Worse Things” contains some of the albums prettiest acoustic guitar work, while “Bag Of Bones” sees Stahl taking the lead vocal, sounding playful but resigned, accompanied by a bawdy trumpet solo from Marc Chillemi.
“Lightning” contains a powerfully emotive lead vocal from Ryan Flaherty that just might be his best singing on the entire record. The mournful bowed bass of Brian Durkin and world-weary backing vocals from Erika Stahl add depth and weight, making this one of the record’s stand-out tracks. Other notable tracks include “Come With Us”, which rises to a crescendo that’s half drunken singalong and half southern gospel choir, and “Convalescent Angel”, the only song on the album to feature an electric guitar (played by Mike Aciero). “Convalescent Angel” is also the most unique track on the album. Brooding, moody and mysterious, it features frighteningly visceral vocals, with lines like “Oh, what a scornful bitch you are!” delivered with venomous fury. Album closer “On And On” opts for a more pastoral approach, with a nice slide guitar and familiar, traditional country images like train wheels and dusty horizons evoking a feeling of restlessness and an urge to move on and leave the past behind.
With an album this good, Muddy Ruckus was all but obligated to take these songs on the road, and that’s exactly what they’ve been doing for the past few weeks. Ryan Faherty is originally from the Midwest, and the band booked a tour playing every night in different cities en route to and from Illinois. The band will take the stage at Empire in Portland on Friday for their official CD release show. Flaherty says “The tour went awesome! We’re finally home and ready to play for friends in Maine again! Empire is a great fit for us…and hats off to venues that advocate original music from their local musicians. Community support for local art and music will only help Portland continue to grow as an all around cool place and destination.” Rounding out the bill at Empire will be Riley Coyote and Pete Witham & The Cozmik Zombies. Tickets are $6, and the show starts at 9:30 p.m. Find more information at www.portlandempire.com.
Muddy Ruckus describes the songs on their debut as “reflection[s] of past mistakes, new beginnings and ramblings of everyday life observations, with a dash of cynical humor.” When asked what fans can expect at the CD release show, Flaherty says, “You’ll have to come and see,” but describes a typical Muddy Ruckus gig as “rowdy, sweaty and anthemically cartoonish.” Sounds like the perfect night of live music.
WHEN: 9:30 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Empire Dine and Dance, Portland
TICKETS: $6, 21-plus