Tiger In Your Tank is MonkeyJunk’s first album and has now been reissued by their current label, Stony Plain, and the new version includes two bonus tracks recorded in 2014. It’s hard to believe this is a debut album. Their sound seems so fully realized and they play together intuitively like it’s been years but they were a relatively new band at the time of the recording. MonkeyJunk formed around Steve Marriner and Tony Diteodoro, two old friends who enlisted drummer Matt Sobb to round out the trio. Together, they developed their rustic, no-bass sound over a few months of playing live. They were nominated for awards before their debut album came out and the buzz has built to a roar since then.
The album opens with a lonesome harmonica and the Son House quote that gave the band its name. “I’m talkin’ ’bout the Blues. . . I ain’t talkin’ ’bout monkey junk!” and then launches into a high energy take on Muddy Waters’ “I Wanna Put A Tiger In Your Tank.” The insistent beat and snarling guitars propel the song and Marriner’s harp signals the arrival of the chugging freight train MonkeyJunk calls their debut album. “Pay the Cost” is like a modern day take on “Mother Earth.” No one makes it out alive and the mournful harp and earthy guitar tones remind us of the inevitable dirt nap we all get for playing. “’If You Were Mine” sounds like a Stevie Ray Vaughan take on Otis Rush which probably says more about Otis’ influence on SRV than anything else. MonkeyJunk turn in a fun version with a brisk shuffle pace with some badass barroom blowing on harp from Steve Marriner and a barnstorming solo from Tony D.
Tony D is a skilled slide guitar player which reminds me that guys like Duane Allman, Sonny Landreth, Derek Trucks, Lowell George and the late, great Johnny Winter get all the accolades when it comes to slide guitar but there are a ton of great slide players hiding in plain sight. Unfortunately, with the music business the way it is, you have to actively seek them out. If you are looking for a good one carrying the torch of the legends but melding styles and playing with a masterful touch and intonation listen to Tony D. His slide chops are all over Tiger In Your Tank but he plays in such a natural, organic way that you can hear it and not realize the skill it takes to make it sound that way. For instance, “Blues For Anna” is a classic Chicago Elmore James style slide tune, except that it isn’t. James’ signature riff is missing but not missed because Tony weaves together licks from the Hill Country to the Delta for a swampy, gritty romp through the bayou of Chicago’s South Side.
“Beefy” indeed has a big, bold tone with lyrical playing from Tony D. “Beefy” is a showcase tune for the whole band. Steve Marriner howls and moans on harp, and percussionist Matt Sobb adds a little hoodoo to the big beat. Speaking of hoodoo, “Boogie Man” is surprise take on Freddie King’s Blackwell/Russell composition. This is what cover songs should be: a near reinvention. Any bar band can faithfully reproduce a song and they’ll always be a bar band. MonkeyJunk deconstructs “Boogie Man” and rebuilds it as a swampy, murky stomp that reminds us more of the scary phantom of childhood nightmares than a womanizer in the 70’s discothèques. It might be my favorite Freddie King cover ever.
The additional bonus songs illustrate the continuity of sound this band has had since its debut album. The first is “Lucky One” and is a high energy rocking tune starting off with the fuzzed out guitar riff that fits in well with the 2009 tones on Tiger In Your Tank. It sounds like Sobb is playing a full kit and it’s missing some of the more interesting accents he uses to great effect on other tracks but everything about this tunes says the boys just wanted to rock and I’m right there with them. This is not a throwaway bonus track that leaves you wish the bonus was cash. Well maybe you still want the money, but the song is excellent and doesn’t musically disappoint. “Pueblo” closes the disc with all the hallmarks of this great debut album. Howling, menacing harp, rich rhythmic elements, and sweet guitar tones for miles. I don’t know where this Pueblo is but it’s got to be somewhere in the swamps of Louisiana, among the cypress, tupelo and alligators. For some reason, it reminds me of the way “When The Levee Breaks” ends Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. It’s dark and eerie and keeps you wondering what’s coming next.
So who are MonkeyJunk? Steve Marriner is a multi-instrumentalist supplying vocals, baritone guitar (baritone guitar? yes, please!), and is perhaps known best as one of Canada’s finest purveyors of harmonica blasting and back porch blowing. Steve has toured and performed with Harry Manx and Sue Foley. He’s appeared on Harry Manx recordings, as well as records from JW Jones Blues Band, and Steve Dawson. He also released his own album, Going Up, in 2007. He won the Ottawa Blues Harp Blow-Off at age 14 and got a spot on stage at that summer’s Ottawa Cisco Blues Festival. But is he any good? Yes, he’s good. He also produced the album and played organ on a few tracks. No, he’s not just showing off.
Tony Diteodoro (aka Tony D) has spent 20 years on the Canadian blues scene with his own band as guitar player, singer, and songwriter. He has played festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, toured Europe several times, and played for Canadian Forces troops stationed around the World. He has released six CDs and is active with Blues In The Schools and other charities. So, he’s been around and seems like a nice guy, but can he play? Let’s ask the eight ball… Sources say yes, and they’re quite right.
Last but not least, the engine driver Matt Sobb was a busy Ottawa-based freelance drummer before he joined MonkeyJunk. He has played with Jeff Healey, Johnnie Johnson, Kim Wilson, Colin Linden, and Lee Oskar just to name a few. He can play any style and uses a variety of percussive instruments to add texture and accents to the MonkeyJunk sound. But can he play the blues? Well if Kim Wilson is calling you, you can play the blues.
Together these gentlemen have created a unique sound beyond classification; breaking blues barriers and building a reputation as custodians of the modern blues. Their sound is at once Chicago Blues, swampy Louisiana Blues, Mississippi Hill Country meets Delta Blues with a dash of Folk, Country, and Funk. It could be a disaster musically but they deftly pull it off, seemingly with no effort at all and that’s how you know they’re good. It takes work, practice, and skill to create something so fresh from forms so old. If Son House was around, he’d surely be talking about MonkeyJunk now.
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