20 WATT TOMBSTONE – The Chosen Few

20 Watt Tombstone’s three contributions to the 2016 split ‘Death Blues vs. The Dirty Spliff’ (shared with Left Lane Cruiser) showcased a band who instinctively knew their way around superb riffs. Those tunes straddled melody and heaviness in an almost perfect way, showcasing a band capable of wielding a great, live sounding tone, often matching the likes of Black Label Society and Black Stone Cherry in terms of chunky retro coolness. Unfortunately, they weren’t exactly speedy in following up that recording. A few years came and went without a word, and then a pandemic lockdown delayed any progress a little further.

Finally poking their collective heads above the parapet in 2021, a welcome digital release from the Tombstone showcased a duo of well chosen covers; tunes which showed off a knack for heaviness, a gift for chunky melodies and – above all – great musical taste. Both of those recordings deserved a more permanent home, and have been resurrected for this long awaited full length release (delivered seven years on from the aforementioned split). It’s really gratifying to note that, despite those covers coming from strong musical stock – ZZ Top and Chris Stapleton – and already being embedded in the fan consciousness, they aren’t necessarily the best tunes on 2023’s ‘The Chosen Few’.

‘Prophet Man’ kicks everything off in style when a crushingly heavy riff emerges – three parts stoner metal, two parts blues – coupled with a suitably crashy drum part. The raw production values will make the sound instantly familiar to fans, making the band sound intense even before a distorted vocal – courtesy of Tom Jordan – fills the rest of the space with an equal amount of grit. Musically, the mix of Kyuss and early ZZ Top feels like standard fare, but with the riff sliding between a swaggering juggernaut of sound during a weighty intro, guitars used in an effective stop/start manner on the verse, and the duo eventually introducing a bluesier tone for the inevitable guitar solo, there’s plenty for extant fans to sink their teeth into. Equally indebted to a huge riff or two, the hefty ‘Black Top Sorrow’ shares a hard edged, stoner friendly sound augmented by deftly played slide guitar, which is used to underscore a very deep and almost soulful vocal. Throughout the first half of the track, the slow and almost lumbering tones demonstrate great playing despite the relative lack of tempo, but it’s when switching gears for a big finish that the magic really happens. Already a little weighted down by the monolithic blues sound, Tom lets out a final howl asking “was it all in vain?”, and with that, the music speeds up brilliantly and appears to crash its way through a very retro stoner/doom riff, not a million miles away from Sabbath’s ‘Children of The Grave’. Despite stretching out from their trademark howls of pain here, it’s absolutely superb, and drummer Mitch Ostrowski drives a brilliant groove for the remainder of the track. If this doesn’t win you over, it’s unlikely anything else in the 2WT canon will…

That said, ‘The Bomb That Saved The Day’ shares a lighter touch that actually suits the material, and could possibly appeal to a less knowing ear or two. Casting aside some of the heavier tones in favour of a well played dirty blues, it’s a great showcase for Tom’s vocal and guitar work, showing how easily the duo’s stoner sound can adapt to great bluesy rock. In some ways, this is top tier 20 Watt Tombstone; in other ways, its nods to a bluesier Black Stone Cherry are a musical shift that’s a little more commercial, though never any kind of sell out. The track shows the duo as a united front, but as with a few other recordings, though, it’s when hitting the instrumental part of the jam that the duo’s potential really shines through, and the combo of an intensively smashed drum kit and massive slide guitar blues riff gives off a sound that’s far bigger than this two man set-up should be capable of delivering. The title cut, meanwhile, opts for a chunky blues rocker where more stop/start riffs lead into a wall of sludgy blues noise, all held together by a steady rhythm. It’s combo of heavy riff, southern tones and huge blues-metal vibes mightn’t be anything new for the band, but between a solid rhythm, angrily applied solo and this album’s most direct lyrical hook, it’s an easy stand-out. Taking the opportunity to stretch out, ‘Magnolia’ at first sounds like a tribute to the early Sabbath’s bluesier numbers, but it doesn’t take long before it settles into a (pleasingly) predictable doomy blues where Tom’s dirty tones push against a crashy drum part, creating a swampy world where an overdriven sound really hammers home this duo’s gifts for a riff. Elsewhere during the track, you’ll encounter a less than subtle nod to the slide guitar sound from Zep’s ‘When The Levee Breaks’, and even a detour into quieter tones, albeit briefly, sharing more of a desert blues vibe that really suits Tom’s voice. It’s a bit of a kitchen sink arrangement, but it’s fair to say that everything works. There seems to be very little within the heavy blues/stoner world off limits to these guys. There’s certainly nothing they’re unable to play with a very effective – if often heavy – hand.

…And what of those aforementioned covers? They’ve been outshone by a couple of ‘The Chosen Few’s newer recordings, but both are still bloody great. Chris Stapleton’s ‘Midnight Train To Memphis’ was an already meaty affair in its original recording, adding a southern rock slant to a hefty blues tune. If Stapleton managed to sound like the missing link between Stevie Ray Vaughan and Black Stone Cherry on that particular recording, then 20 Watt Tombstone set about redressing it in more of Black Label Society guise. The arrangement is intact, but in taking the groove laden riff and hammering it in a much darker and sludgier fashion, it sounds like the work of the ultimate fuzzy blues rock duo. The vocals are also distorted to suit – very much reinforcing the “live in the studio” approach always favoured by the band – but beneath the gruffness and the noise, it’s immediately clear that Jordan is in great voice. Hearing the duo wring such a groove laden tune for everything it’s worth, adding a heavier drum part and reinforcing the original’s chopping Hendrix-ish guitar sounds along the way, is to hear 20 Watt Tombstone approaching something close to full power. It’s brilliant.

As enjoyable as that may be, though, it’s not as good as their cover of ZZ Top’s ‘Just Got Paid’ which comes loaded with incredibly dirty riffs, an unavoidably live drum sound and more vocal grit than most blues bands manage to deliver in a full album. ZZ Top have always been one of those bands with a decent selection of hits, but aren’t always that interesting once you start to scratch below the surface of their “proper” albums. There are a few decent tracks to be found, of course – not least of all this standout from 1972’s ‘Rio Grande Mud’ – but 20 Watt Tombstone instantly make Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill sound more appealing by comparison. From the opening riff, Jordan’s playing is especially on point as he taps into fuzzy southern grooves, but by the time he reaches a very late 60s sounding slide guitar solo and then kickstarts the second half of the performance, he’s truly on fire. Again, there are hints of Black Label throughout, but there’s a greater understanding of what makes a heavy blues performance interesting once these guys hit their stride.

In just seven songs, on ‘The Chosen Few’, 20 Watt Tombstone make their dirty blues and groove heavy southern rock jams sound like some of the coolest music ever recorded. Originality takes a back seat, but with attitude and great riffs always very much at the forefront, this is a release that fans of retro hard rock and noisy blues sounds will absolutely love. Highly recommended.

October 2023