Written by Kirk
20 Watt Tombstone – The Chosen Few
> Stoner rock/blues
> Wisconsin, US
> Releasing October 20
When’s the last time you sat down with a good blues record? Depending on what kind of metalhead you consider yourself, the answer could likely range from “never!” to “just now!” and just about anything in between. The blues is truly an American original, born in the Deep South sometime in the 1860s, a musical style steeped heavily in shout, chants, field hollers, work songs, and spirituals. Kurt Vonnegut called it “…the only good thing to come out of American slavery” and, amongst a myriad of other things that man said over the course of his life, I wholeheartedly agree. Music really doesn’t encapsulate what it truly means to be American quite like the blues.
Now, what does the blues have to do with heavy metal? The answer may surprise you; before changing their name to Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, Geezer Butler, and Ozzy Osbourne were in a blues band called The Polka Tulk Blues Band and then Earth (a name they didn’t realize at the time was already taken) before settling on what became their signature sound. In fact, go back and listen to their debut record, and you can hear the blues influences loud and clear, especially on the medley tracks on both Side A and Side B. Believe it or not, the majority of just about all popular music over the last few hundred years has been built on the solid bedrock of the blues. So…do I have your attention now?
Of course, the blues isn’t as popular now in 2023 as it was in decades (centuries?) past, but its influence cannot—and should not—be denied. Much like its bastard stepchild thrice removed, heavy metal, it has always thrived in the underground, free to evolve and grow without interference from the world of “popular music,” waiting for its chance to reemerge and claim once again its place in the spotlight (albeit temporarily). And while the stylings of such blues legends as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and Howlin’ Wolf will likely never be heard again, their legacy is eternal, and the songs they’ve left behind will be given new life for generations to come.
The garage rock revival of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s gave us an onslaught of new bands, but it was duos like The White Stripes and The Black Keys led the charge for breathing new life into the blues, infusing the tried and true style with other styles like punk and indie rock. And while The White Stripes broke up in 2011 and The Black Keys have gone on to become one of the most popular bands to emerge from that scene, their influences can be heard in a new crop of blues duos who have come to drink the sweet nectar of the blues. One such band is Wausau, Wisconsin’s 20 Watt Tombstone, equal parts ZZ Top and Kyuss featuring Tom Jordan on guitar and lead vocals with Mitch Ostrowski on drums and backing vocals. Fully embracing the often tongue-in-cheek lyricism of classic blues, they play the blues as it was meant to be heard: mean and dirty. They record everything live, so what you hear is dynamic, raw, and just a little bit unhinged. Or, for lack of better terminology, real. This is how the blues is meant to be heard.
Like a great many artists, the COVID-19 pandemic brought life to a grinding halt for the members of 20 Watt Tombstone. The future looked dim and uncertain, but Tom and Mitch persevered, giving us a taste of things to come in the digital EP Year of the Jackalope that dropped in January 2021. Before that, it was a split EP with Left Lane Cruiser in 2016, Death Blues vs. the Dirty Spliff, and their debut album, Wisco Disco, in 2014. But things in the 20 Watt Tombstone camp have been pretty quiet for a little over two years, a few tours here and there and a handful of singles from Tom’s new side project, Reverend Meantooth, but all that time wasn’t wasted; in fact, it was spent perfecting their new record, The Chosen Few.
Sounding like it was recorded in the back of Cheech and Chong’s smoke-filled van, this album is surprisingly tight at 25:21, but that’s because not one second of it has been wasted. There’s a sense of urgency to this record—dare I say desperation—as though these seven demons (two of which we’ve heard before) have been clawing their way to the surface, frenzied at the thought of breaking free and let loose upon the world. But there’s more to it than that; Tom and Mitch sound better than ever, like playing together is the only time they feel truly alive. There’s grit, swagger, and a whole lot of attitude here, and enough of it to fill a baseball stadium. Don’t let the mound of skulls on the album cover fool you, this record is a celebration. Though the world around us may be falling apart, this is not the time to fall into despair. Rejoice and seek solace in the blues!
THE BOTTOM LINE
Not to toot my own horn, but I think I hit the nail on the head back in April when I reviewed Lucifer Star Machine’s Satanic Age: “…just because it no longer sits at the head of the table doesn’t mean rock & roll is really and truly ‘dead’; it’s enjoying life in the underground and absolutely thriving.” This statement, of course, applies to the blues because rock & roll is derived from the blues (as are so many other music genres). And it’s bands like 20 Watt Tombstone that exist to remind us just how vital and alive the blues scene remains to this day, almost 200 years after its inception. Will there be another blues revival in the future? Without a doubt. Will it happen in my lifetime? Maybe, and I hope to see it happen. But rest assured in this one universal truth: the blues will never die.