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The Dig 3 - Damn The Rent

Release date: Sept. 19, 2023

Self-Release

By Curt Brown

L to R: Ronnie Shellist, Gerry Hundt, Andrew Duncanson/ photo: Dave Specter


One year and a couple of months ago this reviewer sat within the confines of his north central Indiana blues lair and tried his damnedest to remain critically centered while reviewing The Dig 3, the freshman outing by the band of the same name (please find that review here in the Chicago Blues Guide). But the energy expended in seeking a moral and professional high ground while absorbing the efforts of three seasoned blues buffs and obvious kindred spirits was wasted as the obvious unfolded inside my ears; that musical assemblage was purely astounding in its extent of brilliance and dedication to discernment and essence over the mediocrity that, oftentimes, casts itself as top-tier recorded blues production today.


So yet again come Gerry Hundt (Nick Moss, Corey Dennison), Andrew Duncanson (Kilborn Alley), and Ronne Shellist, rightfully, no doubt, still savoring the merited accolades resulting from their first collaboration with Damn The Rent, a new all original 12-song effort. Okay lads, you impulsively kissed the pretty girl the first time, got away with it, and enjoyed the bejeezus out of it. But that second kiss is infinitely harder, as now you’ve got to think about it, plan it, and worry whether the sequel will, in any manner, deliver the thrill of the first. Sophomore endeavors of all kinds often litter the roadways with broken dreams, desires, and lofty aspirations.


Together again in the studio, going for the second win, are multi-instrumentalist Hundt, that devoted conjurer and purveyor of not only the blues, but of other durable erstwhile musical forms, Andrew Duncanson, he of the moving vocal proficiencies that slide him into apt comparisons to esteemed vocalists with surnames such as Womack, Bland, and Odom, and Ronnie Shellist, the blues harmonica professor whose work has impressively found him opening showcases for blues giants while supplementing the labors of Chicago’s day-in day-out blues ranks.


In one early December day in 2022, the mighty trio carved into stone ten new tunes devoid of studio gimmickry of any sort. The remaining two songs that are included here as “Bonus Tracks” were laid down in November, 2022, and extraordinarily expose another facet of musical superiority that whets the appetite as to what the future could bring.


All that set-up said, Damn The Rent is an absolute success by any metric, and without any stipulation is a candidate for this reviewer’s top collection of 2023. There is no letdown whatsoever in song variety, inventiveness, and individual and collective capabilities. No, the excitement generated by one listen to The Dig 3’s first recording excursion remains intact with Damn The Rent, and if it’s at all possible, it surpasses it. In an age where myriad blues guitarists cram note-upon-note into finite verses with amplifier knobs buried at 10, with vocalists shrieking theatrical lyrics devoid of any feeling or soul, and weary cover tunes the norm, this new CD by The Dig 3 should act as the primer of how to get in and get out of a three-minute tune, saying so much within that framework with an instrumental and vocal tapestry that are tasteful and reverential to true discriminating ears.


What a racket these three gentlemen can make! On the opening track, “Take A Ride,” Hundt segues the listener into the song with a firm rhythmic expectation, one that undeniably has a decidedly Bo Diddley guitar cadence, given that the tune’s tale is one of being in motion via one’s travel wanderlust. Duncanson’s fibrously tough and assured vocal delivery weaves an account of his journeys; his capability to allot his vocal energies appropriate to the gist of a particular song is a gift. The listener cannot in any way deny his sung assertions. While Duncanson sings, Shellist’s captivating and concise harmonica weavings gracefully and fully slide in and out, and when the solo break comes, that expedition only heightens the concepts of excitement and joy that Duncanson sings regarding his voyages. The firm, locked-in, and relentless rhythm (thank you, Hundt), charging guitar, harmonica whorls, and vocal declarations kick this collection off in very fine form, indeed.


“All The Love That I Got” veers strongly into a melded blues/soul stew, one that frolics with the protestations of a man who lays bare his unconcealed love for his woman. The object of Duncanson’s profession of amour obviously desires some time to live her life, but he most assuredly implores that he will be waiting and present upon her return. He is compelled to impart upon her that what awaits her in returning is a future, no, a lifetime, of blissful memories to be made together. The guitar reeling in the background is the ideal musical construct for the tune. Hundt’s firm, unyielding rhythmic backbone is solid and dynamic; the man is a human metronome who hurls the tempo of any song forward, locked-in and sturdy. Shellist’s harmonica warbles and glides in the upper registers, and pleases with both its emphasis and economy. Never has testifying about one’s devotion and commitment sounded so authentic, joyous, and without question.


“Big Water” is a cautionary saga set undeniably to a John Lee Hooker pulse. Whatever the analogy “big water” signifies, be it literal to global warming’s effects upon the planet, or perhaps undercurrents of continued political, racial, or other societal issues, Duncanson seeks a simple honest conversation about what ails his mind. The harmonica work is especially throaty, and creates visions of storm clouds on the horizon that are dark, thick, and roiling. The unyielding percussive impulses serve to heighten the tension inherent in the moment. The guitar plays its part expertly; it’s there, it’s highly effective, but it does not intrude. This is great theater of the mind.


“Dip My Toe” is a primal inferno of a tune where a man takes a look back at the lot of his life, his vices, his fun, and without any qualifications whatsoever asks all to remember him for who he was. Period. Don’t sugarcoat it, recognize the life lived, and accept it and him, good and bad, sunshine and warts, without any deep thinking necessary. This is subject matter that the late Chicago bluesman Byther Smith would’ve addressed, and like his musings, it profoundly cuts. The harmonica essentially builds superb squalling anxiety, while a hauntingly dancing bass line swirls over the proceedings. Percussion slaps and slams away with the authority required of such lyrical substance carrying the weight of the subject matter with a firm grasp. One wholly believes Duncanson’s biographical recollections, and his guitar, in the best way, is pervasive in a way that makes it an ideal ringing pillar among the other musical exploits found here.


“Chuck & Willie” is that tune a band pulls out when they want to get the audience out of their seats and out on the dance floor. It’s that song that almost commands that the band disappears from the bandstand when viewed from the audience’s perspective, as the tune’s upbeat, infectious beat, and spiraling sound virtually delivers the whole of the show’s onlookers onto the dance floor converting them into a gyrating mass. Hundt’s organ work throughout the piece forms an idyllically buoyant context. It’s presence in this song cannot be understated. Duncanson’s guitar solo thrills and hops, while Shellist’s harmonica sails smoothly over the top. The beat is irresistible. This is a Dancefloor Workout 101 lesson. Bravo!


If anyone had told me that I’d find a song on a blues CD entitled “Coconut Curry Dance,” I’d would’ve provided them a bus ticket and $20 in dining money for a trip to a sanatorium so they could get their head right. But here it is, track number six, and this calypso beat-inspired workout is a truly delightful metaphorical culinary recipe on the ever-evolving nature of romance and a relationship. The hypnotic swing and sway of this tune immediately hooks the listener with its easy gliding harmonica waves and virtuoso percussion exertions, with Duncanson proffers why the subjects of the song need each other as they develop as mates. Oh-so-sublime guitar keeps the melody highly apparent, appropriately yielding to the story being sung.


“Gold Tooth” leads with Hundt and his mandolin labors (and this man is widely recognized as a leading maestro on the instrument), instantaneously bringing to mind Chicago blues mandolin great Johnny Young. The listener is whisked straightaway to a Maxwell Street blues performance from the heyday of the famed open-air blues environment, such is the clamor that unfolds. As Hundt continues to thrum his mandolin, escalating in volume and tenseness and then dropping back as the song’s story grows, so does the full, harrowing harmonica sweats, and when the two conjoin they are lost in abandon as distressing as the song’s focus. The tune is a tale of a man who barely is able to again make his rent if only for the monies received from the selling of his incarcerated father’s gold tooth, one that was mailed to him. Our subject here sees his life as folly in the big city, and he desires a simpler life far westward. As Duncanson sings, “Damn this city/Oh, and damn the rent.” Indeed!


“Blanco Boogaloo” is a high-energy, hip-jolting, virulent harmonica-based workout that has, in this reviewer’s opinion, coursing undertones of danger, wildness, and mania at its core. My god, the harmonica tension and bluster throughout is akin to a tornadic outbreak. The guitar relentlessly chomps and bites prominently but never intrudes, and the percussive enterprise does not allow one to remain still; it motivates and pushes. Solid!


“Red-Tailed Hawks” breaks from the blocks at the pace of an Olympic sprinter. Its chugging immediately snares the listener; its teeth have a firm grip from the get-go. Yet again Duncanson sings of leaving Chicago and the cold (literal and figurative) existence found there for a new vista where those annoyances and pressures would be stripped away. The harmonica solo strongly highlights the immediacy and determination at the fore of his relocation desires. An absolutely unremitting pace drives this tune, and the beating rhythmic heartbeat at the core of this tale is a perfect agenda to emphasize the urgency of the storyline.


Cut number ten, “Old Dog,” brings to a close the “meat” of this collection (before the “Bonus Tracks”), and is a rollicking hokum outing featuring Hundt’s delicious kazoo forays. Heavens, it feels as though this is a time travel tune back to some 1930s street performance, the crowd gathering and pitching coins as appreciation for the bouncing, lively, and enchanting song unfolding before them on some dirty, urban Chicago sidewalk! Lightly strummed guitar, that delectable kazoo, the harmonica warbling away, and Duncanson singing simple, buoyant lyrics; magic! Just magic!


These first ten selections were recorded in one day with no studio wiles, free from any editing or overdubbing, at Earth Analog in Tolono, Illinois by James Treichler.


The two “Bonus Tracks” originate from Reliable Recorders in Chicago, with Alex Hall at the helm of the production. These two selections find Duncanson and Hundt on-board, but also offer Lauren Dukes providing backing vocal work, Rick King handling the percussion duties, and Aaron Whittier supplying low-end bass powers.


“Southern Fantasy” is roughly three-and-one-half minutes of funk, an illusory boy-meets-girl budding romance tale, one that finds the subjects moving rapidly from their initial meeting to immediately making plans to traverse the south in search of memories to be made. The funk is so thick one would be excused from imagining Don Cornelius introducing the Soul Train line dance to the marvel of this tune. The song continues to build in intensity, guitars distorting in that groovy burbling way they do with funk material, with the percussive onslaught powerfully insistent. Prepare to be bowled over by Duncanson’s vocal dexterity on this material, and Dukes’ muscular chorus work is on-point. This is no throw-away “let’s try this for the hell of it” tune; this cut demonstrates the utmost dedication of Duncanson and Hundt to say, “Just hang on, we got it!” to the unsuspecting. Great stuff!


Finally, “All The Love That I Got” (reprise) immediately reminds of the great soul legend James Carr; that’s how entrancing Duncanson delivers this chestnut. This tale of a man’s devotion to his woman, his love, and his kindred spirit is a celebration of the depth of warmth capable of being felt when one knows, really knows, how profound a love can be. He trusts her in her travels, but also implores her to realize where they are on the great unknown timeline of life, assuring her that he is always there with her, and always will be. What superb songwriting and performing! Amazing versatility presented here!

This 12-song collection of originals by The Dig 3 once again has this reviewer in awe of the splendor of great songwriting, individual and collective musical interplay and respect, and the obvious determination Duncanson, Hundt, and Shellist possess to move their brand of overwhelmingly impressive music from conceptual visions to fully realized musical bliss.


The Dig 3 and their fans are fully aware of their eminent proficiencies. If their inaugural self-titled CD didn’t altogether convince the remaining skeptics whether that collection represented the work of a one-trick-pony, this abundantly distinguished second outing should convert those questioners firmly into true fans and be soaring cause for celebration. As someone who hears the bulk of what is released nowadays in the blues arena professing to be “the latest and greatest,” this reviewer is staunch in his appraisal that this lofty material by The Dig 3 is what others should be aiming toward.


Damn The Rent by The Dig 3 is enlivening in its musical integrity and in the individual and cumulative talent amassed, and is highly-recommended without any stipulation whatsoever. We all are indebted to these sterling musicians for what should be recognized as one of the best outings of 2023. Gentlemen, a robust “thank you” for this awesome collection! Reap the rewards, and please, remain true to your high standards and capabilities! They are exceedingly apparent here!


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About the Author: Curt Brown is the author of the weekly “Curt’s Blues” blog (Curt's Blues - Blues. Only. Spoken. Here. (curtsblues.com). He was the long-time late-night blues radio host on WSND FM 88.9 Notre Dame/South Bend. His Master’s Degree thesis from Indiana University dealt with the notion of travel in blues lyrics. He previously published a weekly blues article for the student newspaper of Indiana University South Bend, and has been interviewed by newspapers and magazines regarding the blues.





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Waters Charlie
Waters Charlie
2 days ago

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