Recording of April 2004: Miracle Mule

THE SUBDUDES: Miracle Mule
Back Porch 70876-18410-2-2 (CD). 2004. Subdudes, Freddy Koella, prods.; Warren Dewey, eng. AAD? TT: 52:13
Performance *****
Sonics ***½

Reunions are touchy things. Sometimes it's almost instantly obvious—no names here, but you know who they are—that it would have been better had a band stayed apart and allowed history to remember them fondly.

In the case of the Subdudes—a talented band that, after five albums, broke up in 1997—a reunion was a decidedly good thing. Dedicated to making heady, original music that touched most of the essential poles of American music—gospel, blues, rock'n'roll, R&B—the Subdudes found themselves in the same predicament as other between-the-cracks bands: their music was too complicated for most radio and too hard for retail to rack, and so became all but invisible to the average consumer.

As is the case with most successful reunions, it's clear that the time that founders Tommy Malone, Steve Amedee, and John Magnie spent apart has recharged their batteries and given them something fresh to say. From the opening bars of the gospel brunch opener, "Morning Glory," it's clear that their confidence is back, along with new flames of devotion to gospel and the band's New Orleans roots.

A little history for the uninitiated: Born in the famous New Orleans club Tipitina's in 1987, the Subdudes included two sons of Louisiana, guitarist-vocalist Tommy Malone and percussionist-vocalist Steve Amedee, as well as keyboardist John Magnie, originally from Colorado, who'd by then moved to NOLA. The band built a local following before relocating to Ft. Collins, Colorado and signing with High Street Records, who released five albums: The Subdudes (1989), Lucky (1991), Annunciation (1994), Primitive Streak (1996), and the swan song, Live at Last (1997).

After their split, Malone and bassist Johnny Ray Allen returned to New Orleans, where they formed the group Tiny Town. Magnie, Amedee, and bassist-percussionist Tim Cook stayed in Colorado and formed Three Twins. In February 2002, Magnie sat in with another assemblage, the Tommy Malone Band (which included bassist-guitarist Jimmy Messa), during a gig in Denver, and the Subdudes reunion was born. The current lineup of Malone, Amedee, and Magnie is completed by Cook and Messa.

One part folk-rock, one part soul revival, one part New Orleans jam band, and a healthy final dollop of gospel fervor, the 'Dudes' roots-rock eclecticism has always been agreeable, approachable, and full of a heartfelt honesty that comes through on nearly every song. Although it's also a comeback album, Miracle Mule is to the Subdudes catalog what The Neighborhood is to Los Lobos: a low-key, well-rounded, consistent collection of Americana filtered through the sensibilities of their own particular style of Vieux Carré meets Rocky Mountain High. To further the comparison, the Subdudes' three vocalists often sound uncannily like Los Lobos' Cesar Rosas and the great David Hidalgo.

In fact, much of the band's magic depends on the interplay and harmonies of the three founders' strong voices—nothing here is too loud or too flashy. There's no full-on drum kit, and electric guitars are kept turned down very low or are absent altogether. Sometime Bob Dylan guitarist Freddy Koella produced Miracle Mule; the sound, while often warm and immediate, has moments where the instrumental mix gets fuzzy and the dynamic range falls below what they should be.

In "The Brightest Star," which undoubtedly turns into a jam when played live, accordion, violin, acoustic guitars, and the band's percussion trademark of tambourine and cymbal are mixed into the kind of solid, midtempo, white-gospel rock groove that could be the closest thing the 'Dudes have to a unique style.

Miracle Mule hits its stride in the middle stretch, tracks 6-8, which open with "If Wishin' Made It So," a bittersweet tune melding elements of SoCal rock, the three vocalists in harmony, and an electric guitar solo, to form another soul revival.

A Subdude trademark has always been sing-along, almost doo-wop-sweet choruses, such as those in "I'm Angry" ("That I still love you...") and "Known to Touch Me"—perhaps the album's most soaring, optimistic tune. Blending accordion with the three voices, "Known to Touch Me" gives all three founders a chance to testify.

Everything the Subdudes do is flecked through with the band's New Orleans roots, specifically New Orleans R&B, which is the dominate flavor of such tunes as "Oh Baby," in which a little Professor Longhair/James Booker-like pie-annie makes a welcome appearance.

Most of all, the Subdudes' return has again given us the kind of earnest, unfeigned sincerity that's been in ever shorter supply in the seven years they've been apart.—Robert Baird