It sounds like Little Walter fronting ZZ Top, mixing uptown Chicago blues with the muddy, swampy sound of the Delta. But Moreland and Arbuckle don't want to be known just as a blues act. With the help of drummer Brad Horner, guitarist Aaron Moreland and harpist Dustin Arbuckle blast out an industrial strength blend of genres.
"It's increasingly difficult for us to categorize ourselves," Arbuckle says from his Wichita home. "There's elements of everything from delta blues to traditional country to stoner rock. We're also just a roots/Americana band."
The power trio exposes some gnarly roots on its latest, Flood, released on Telarc in February. Leading off with a slam-bang, reed-bending cover of Little Walter's "Hate to See You Go," the group thunders through a selection of originals and one extreme reworking of a traditional folk song that Arbuckle says has been a centerpiece of their set for years. "Legend Of John Henry" is transformed into a revved-up hill country stomp sounding like it was pumped through ZZ Top's amps with Arbuckle blasting away like James Cotton.
Moreland plays a four-string cigar box guitar on the live cut, with the bass string run though a bass amp and the other three run through a guitar amp. Moreland lays down a groove deep enough for a hippo to wallow in, creating a thunderous roar that keeps building till you'll swear the contraption is gonna be blown to splinters any second.
"Groove is super important for us," Arbuckle says, giving credit to Moreland's guitar style and tone for the band's thick, heavy sound. "He finger-picks everything so even though there's no bass player, the bottom end's always there." Arbuckle blows harp in a more rhythmic style than most of his peers while Horner locks the bigfoot groove down solid.
The trio often lays a hill country drone over the big backbeat. Arbuckle admits to being a big fan of hill country legends, including fife and drum leader Otha Turner and guitarists R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. "It's just as much a bedrock of our music as the Delta blues is," the harpist says.
But that's just one element of the band's sound. Arbuckle says the band enjoys stoner rock as well. "Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss, Black Sabbath — that sludgy heavy feeling, a little bit different than a lot of modern blues rock stuff based around crazy guitar wanking."
Although there are no Black Sabbath renderings of the blues on the record, Arbuckle says not to rule that out. "It's probably something that would come through if you saw us in our live set, man," Arbuckle says, laughing.
The trio manages to match the energy of its live shows on record. The Elmore James-inspired "Don't Wake Me," a gritty, nasty explanation of why you oughta let the poor bluesman sleep 'cause he done wore his mojo out tryin' to love his baby right all night long, literally leaps out at you.
Although the majority of the songs on this record are originals, Arbuckle says there is always room in the band's set and on record for covers. "In traditional music and blues and roots music, doing some covers is part of the deal, part of letting people know where the music came from."
In this case, that place is Kansas, Moreland and Arbuckle's native state. Although most people don't think of the Midwest as a hotbed of blues, Arbuckle is quick to point out that Kansas was home to a big jump blues scene led by Big Joe Turner and Jay McShann, who also featured KC native Charlie Parker in one of his early bands. "Kansas City always had a strong jazz and blues scene, was a strong black music scene," says Arbuckle, who displays a tattoo of his native state prominently on his forearm.
The band is the state's blues and roots ambassadors, opening for Jonny Lang, Buddy Guy, George Thorogood, Los Lobos and Robert Cray.
"Hopefully, people will look back on us as a band that made really great music," Arbuckle says. "Kept it simple, kept it real, always tried to do our own thing."