The Tuning Fork is an oddly-named roots music venue in downtown Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. It is a pretty unassuming bar which has hosted some of the biggest names in Americana music – the likes of Steve Earle, Son Volt, The Reverend Payton’s Big Damn Band, and Texan good-guys Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock.
Enter the venue’s latest attraction: T-Bone. T-who, you may well ask, while speculating on the reincarnation of the great bluesman T-Bone Walker or indeed a surprise sojourn across the Pacific by famed producer-musician T-Bone Burnett.
No, it is just plain T-Bone! And this quintet – comprising an Irishman, an American and three New Zealanders – have just produced one of the stand-out Americana albums of the year!
And they did so while doing something none of the esteemed above-mention folk ever did – they had to resort to the fund-raising social media platform PledgeMe, to find the money to finish the mastering, duplication and artwork for their debut album.
No fan who pledged will be disappointed with their investment. The resulting 11-song album Good 'n Greasy is an exhilarating traverse across all those acoustic genres - folk, Zydeco/Cajun, bluegrass, old timey, blues - that contribute to the sometimes hard-to-define Americana music. And to add to its status, eight of the tracks are originals.
Good ‘n Greasy was released on June 17 and despite T-Bone’s relative isolation in New Zealand, the rest of the Americana world is listening and starting to take notice. To reward loyal funding-fans, and spread the good news, T-Bone are in the middle of a short promotional tour – hence their appearance at The Tuning Fork!
The driving force behind the band is Dublin-born Gerry Paul, who was raised in New Zealand but spent many years as a regular on the European folk scene. When he returned to Wellington, he teamed up with another expatriate, New Jersey-born fiddle player Richard Klein. The duo became the T-Bone trio when they invited mandolinist Cameron “Dusty” Burnell to join. Eventually they became a five-piece outfit with the addition of bass player Aaron Stewart and multi-instrumentalist Michael Muggeridge.
For almost seven years, their musical output was little more than a weekly Monday-night jamming session and some monthly gigs locally. But when they had accumulated a catalogue of original material, it was time to enter a recording studio. They did so on September 21 and the crowd-funded Good ‘n Greasy was born.
As expected, T-Bone’s setlist at The Tuning Fork was all about the album. But when you take these boys out of the studio, they return to what they do best – good ole jammin’.
Klein never took the fiddle from his shoulder and Stewart held firmly to the double bass. And the rest? Well they swapped more instruments in two hours than Mickey Rooney swapped wives in a lifetime. And the lead vocals were also shared, with all the band, except Stewart, playing pass-the-parcel.
As in the album, the show kicks off with their bluesy rendition of the traditional “Lucille.” Klein, the band’s elder statesman, immediately accentuates the vocals in a live setting, while the mandolin and banjo help give it a bluegrass grunt. Close your eyes and you could be in a Beale Street bar!
The band’s anthem is clearly “T-Bone Rag.” And here they soon prove they have wonderful five-part harmonies to match their instrumental brilliance. This is the story of their sheer existence, where music jams were matched by good food and fine wine: Gonna drink some good wine/Gonna eat some crayfish/Gonna cook some T-bone/Gonna put it on a nice dish/Gonna sing old time tunes/Under that big old moon/Singin’ and a drinkin’ a laughing and a singing/Gonna dance the night away
Close your eyes and you could be a sleepy Tennessee hollow. Wait a minute? You will be hard-pressed to find crayfish in Tennessee!
Given that most of these easy-listening, sort-of-ragtime songs are written by Paul and members of the band, it is easy to take their song-writing skills for granted.
There is nothing more inventive than “Come Play Me” in which the first person is a 1930’s Gibson guitar reflecting on life in old age. Klein’s fiddle provides a gentle introduction before Dusty Burnell does the clever story-telling: I’ve been picked/And I’ve been plucked/In times of great despair/I’ve been picked by some/ Who I thought didn’t care/Won’t you come play me
One of T-Bone’s non-original songs “Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy” - the obvious origin of the album title - again has Klein in the spotlight on lead vocals, not to mention his fiddle riffs which ooze southern sound through this traditional number.
Klein stays below the Mason-Dixon line with a very inventive version of “Jole Blon” which he rightfully refers to as “the Cajun national anthem.” It is one of few songs in the set not from the album. Another is “Stealin’” which sees Gerry Paul pay true homage to legends Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, two of the great pioneers of roots music, long before it was Americana.
If there is any song in the gig which demonstrates the enormous musical depth to this five-piece line-up, it is “Stealin’.” Even bassman Aaron Stewart gets a solo here, though the spotlight must go to a scintillating mandolin duel between “Dusty” Burnell and Michael Muggeridge. If it is necessary to single out one artist in this very unified outfit, it would have to be Muggeridge, the baby of the band whose multi-instrumental skills need to be seen to be believed.
T-Bone chose their most foot-tapping number “I Like to Ramble” to fittingly end the show, with Gerry and Dusty harmonizing nicely on what is their most old-timey, bluegrass song.
Gerry then invited the lead warm-up, Hawaiian-born troubadour John Oszajca, back for the encore – a good choice given that Oszajca’s powerful vocals allowed the band to jam their hearts out, first on a very upbeat version of the Cowboy Junkies standard “Mining For Gold” and then on everyone’s sing-along favourite “Little Liza Jane.”
Every so often, the release of an impressive debut album will suddenly turn the spotlight on unknown artist or group who have been in the shadow for far too long. Not only have these artists been lost in a dingy jamming room, they have been so at the far end of the Americana universe.
It is time for them to enter the world stage. For this T-Bone is very rare indeed!
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation