Friday, 15 May 2020

Ron Keel Band - South x South Dakota (2020)



Country: USA
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
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Most people know the name of Ron Keel from the hard rock band Keel, who sold a couple of million albums during the eighties. Some might remember a little further back when his band Steeler featured a new in the US guitarist called Yngwie Malmsteen. He's actually explored a lot more territory than that. If an album carries the Ron Keel Band moniker, it's likely to be southern rock, and if the band are IronHorse, they're going to be country. He even sang in a Brooks & Dunn tribute band in Las Vegas.

This isn't just a southern rock album, it's a southern rock covers album and not of particularly surprising songs either, though fortunately not the most obvious. You're not going to hear an attempt at Freebird here, not Whipping Post and not Green Grass and High Tides, though frankly the best versions of those songs would be longer than this entire album. You will, however, hear a selection of songs another level down in fame, including five from number 16 to number 22 on Swampland's list of the the Top 25 Songs of the Southern Rock Era.

They're not bad versions, played a little closer to Keel's traditional hard rock than any of the original bands got. The first highlight is probably a late Lynyrd Skynyrd song, Red White & Blue, which they wrote after 9/11, so hardly a gimme from their old days. It runs over six minutes, which gives it time for Dave Cothern to play some wild southern guitar. It's a strong cover and Keel's voice fits it well. He does well on Don't Misunderstand Me, the Rossington Collins Band song, with the welcome aid of singer Jasmine Cain.

It has more trouble with songs that we know by heart. For instance, he's not bad on songs like Rockin' into the Night or Flirtin' with Disaster, songs so iconic that I wouldn't have to tell any southern rock fan that the originals were by 38 Special and Molly Hatchet. However, he doesn't bring anything to them that wasn't there already, so they're inherently lesser versions. Songs this iconic have to be completely reinvented the way that, say, Johnny Cash did to be worth the effort. These don't do that.

And that knowledge makes me wonder why he chose some of these songs. So many bands have covered the Allman Brothers Band's Ramblin' Man that a close take like this is pointless. Once COVID-19 is gone, you'll be able to waltz into any bar in the deepsouth on a Friday night and hear a local band playing it just as well. The same goes for Ghost Riders in the Sky, a 1948 song by Stan Jones that's covered by someone else every year, most obviously for Ron Keel by the Outlaws, and Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys, which was originally an Ed Bruce song before Waylon & Willie got hold of it.

And that means that this is a fun album, sung and played well, but an almost entirely disposable one. I'm not remotely going to suggest that you're going to get this quality out of any random cowboy-booted karaoke singer in a dive bar in Jacksonville but the overall effect is pretty much the same. This was clearly fun for Ron Keel but, to us, it's always going to be a set of songs that we've heard for years done almost but not quite like the originals and that's never the best thing to take away from a covers album.

I'm all for Ron Keel becoming the "Metal Cowboy" that he's calling himself nowadays. He does it well and his band are clearly very talented musicians, especially evident on rockers like Flirtin' with Disaster and the Atlanta Rhythm Section's Homesick. However, if he's going to do more than front a tribute band or play all his gigs at Alabama wedding receptions, he needs to write a heck of a lot of new songs and find a way to reinvent the old ones that he's covering.

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