Traveling Show by the Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank (2009. Consider it Correspondence Music.)

Little Duluth is on fire when it comes to music. I’ve already profiled the latest album by that Duluth-based icon of slow rock, Low (see review archives for a full review). Next up will be my take on Duluth roots musician and guitarist, Charlie Parr’s 2010 effort, When the Devil Goes Blind. But today, I’ll let you in on a secret: The Hobo Nephews can write and play authentic roots music, pulling out all stops in a musical compendium that includes aspects of John Prine’s vocals, Wilco’s musicianship, and The Band’s grit. Really. These guys are that good.

My son Chris has talked quite a bit about both the Nephews as a band and Teague Alexy (one of the two Alexy brothers who make up the trio know as the Hobo Nephews) as a solo act. Chris has tried (without success) to drag me to see Teague at Beaner’s or other local venues. For whatever reason, I haven’t made it out to see Alexy or his brother, Ian, who joins Teague in the Hobo Nephews. Now I know what I’ve been missing: The two Alexy brothers play some mean guitar and write some mighty fine songs. Add percussionist Paul Grill to the mix and you’ve got a fine, fine trio. Filling out the album is also a fine constellation of players, adding pedal steel, strings, mandolin, banjo, horns, and keyboards when the songs demand.

From the opening cut, “Traveling Show” to “Daddy’s Coming Home”, this disc is full of lyrical genius and just plain home-cooked playing. “Old Friends and Rent Checks” is such a spot on tribute to John Prine (including the mandolin playing of Erik Berry) you’d swear it was Prine himself behind the lyric and the voice. “Memphis in Your Head” brings to mind Levon Helm and The Band, especially with the Wurlitzer adding texture to the driving beat of the song. The country flavor of “A Long Time to be Gone” makes the grade as either a terrific road or country song: you decide. And “In the Morning” has got that toe-tapping feel of the best of Jeff Tweedy and Wilco.

The production of this album doesn’t match the lushness of Low’s latest, but given the rockabilly leanings of the Nephews, one wouldn’t expect the same level of sonic artistry. My only criticism? At times the vocals twang a too much and thin out some. But that, in the end, is part of the charm of the group.

The CD comes with a DVD which is a bit odd in pace and direction but has one great scene of the band busking on a stairway in Brooklyn. That cut is worth sitting through the rest of the video and redeems the project, in my eyes. For those of us who don’t know much about the Nephews, a more straight on documentary of their touring and their recording sessions would have been welcome.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. One of the best out of Duluth I’ve ever listened to!

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