Wing and a Prayer

music-leadHow one fateful recording session changed everything for the Delta Saints

There’s a general rule for bands going into the recording studio: have your songs polished and ready to go. Studio time isn’t cheap and the more time you spend practicing songs or figuring out arrangements, the more expensive your recording session gets.

But for their new album, Bones, Nashville-based blues-rock band the Delta Saints threw that rule out the window. Before heading into the studio, the band had been on the road for the better part of two years, and hadn’t had much opportunity to write new material. They had a handful of polished songs, but not enough for a new album. Producer Eddie Spear suggested that the band go into the studio and create on the spot.

“The experience was terrifying,” says frontman Ben Ringel. “Just terrifying. [Spear] said, ‘We’re going to go by the seat of our pants and dive into that moment of creativity, that moment of inspiration.’”

In the studio, the band laid down ideas, fleshed them out and recorded in the moment, then listened to the tracks the next day to see if they were keepers. Recording this way, the band members weren’t able to overthink the details—they had to surrender to the creative spirit.

The session, terrifying though it may have been, shook things up for the band. Ringel calls it a step in the evolution of the Delta Saints. Originally a harmonica-based blues band, after eight years the members were feeling stagnant, and they’d been moving their sound in a new direction.

“The music we were really digging on wasn’t what we were making,” says Ringel, explaining the move to a new sound. “It wasn’t like abandoning everything we had built and starting fresh, but it was really pushing the music we were making and forcing it to evolve because we were evolving as music listeners and music appreciators.”

For Ringel, who was born in Louisiana and grew up listening to New Orleans jazz, cajun music, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, and hill-country blues artists Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside, the new sound moves the band away from straight blues toward blues-inspired rock à la Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and the White Stripes. He can trace the line between his early influences and the band’s new music, but says that the spectrum connecting the two is wider now.

“Our earlier records are heavily Delta blues and New Orleans influenced,” he says. “On this new record … the approach is a little broader, where we’re starting to pull pretty hard from other directions.”

Bones is a full-throttle rock ’n’ roll affair, with crashing drums, arena-sized vocals, and a big, layered sound full of texture and nuance. Imagine My Morning Jacket joining forces with Dead Weather—or, in the tamer moments, the Black Keys—and you’re on the right track. The band describes their sound as “bourbon-fueled bayou rock.”

The album takes an unexpected turn on the title track, breaking from its American blues foundation and turning to Malian desert-blues. Inspired by the Tuareg band Tinariwen, the song “Bones” is driven by rolling African rhythms and a combination of traditional styles and electric instruments.

“It’s such a blend of this very carnal part of music,” says Ringel of Tinariwen’s music, “with these rhythms that mimic your heartbeat, and also a very modern side. Those guys have lived what we would consider really hard, troublesome lives, with a heavier burden than hopefully any of us would ever have to carry. And they turned it into this really beautiful, impactful music.”

The impact Tinariwen had on the Delta Saints speaks to the power of music to transcend time and space between artist and listener. By capturing that moment of spontaneous creation in the studio, the Delta Saints hope to share the emotion and energy of their own music.

“Music is something that is very hard or impossible to fake,” says Ringel. “The music that really stands the test of time is music that was very honest in its creation. As a musician and a songwriter, I don’t think it gets any better than that.”

The Delta Saints will perform at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 2 at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $8/adv, $10/door. 423-1338.

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