Hans Chew Creates Piano Based Americana Storm on ‘Open Sea’ (Album Review)

Hans Chew describes his work as piano-based Americana and R&B but that doesn’t go far enough. His music encompasses familiar rock strains from the 70s and even hints of jazz and classical. It’s hard to describe in just a few words or catchphrases. This is an adventurous, interesting listen. At its core, though, it’s just damn good rock n’ roll.

Chew elaborates, “My grandfather sang harmony on Sundays in a little country church quartet and in the evening I’d hear him pickin’ and grinnin’ that ‘high lonesome sound’ of Jimmy Martin and Hank Williams out on the carport with his brothers. My mother turned me on to Hendrix and the Stones, but my father listened only to classical music: I knew Beethoven’s Fifth before Led Zeppelin’s fourth.” Accordingly, Chew finds much of his inspiration in the classic 60s/70s rockers from both sides of the pond: Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Fairport Convention, Mighty Baby, and the Grateful Dead.

He is not a newcomer, first receiving recognition playing with the late American Primitive guitarist Jack Rose and moving from there as a sideman for Endless Boogie, Hiss Golden Messenger, Steve Gunn and many others. His 2010 debut album, Tennessee and Other Stories, received huge plaudits from Rolling Stone and Uncut. This is his fourth studio album, with Chew having journeyed from his native Tennessee to Georgia, New Orleans, and now New York City.

Thematically he moves away from his typical searching and longing to explore the existential questions about being a man, the meaning of work, and the permanence of choices. He wants to settle in but doesn’t quite know how to go about it. Yet, musically he has decisively recruited a crack band that features expressive guitarist and long-time collaborator Dave Cavallo along with drummer Rob Smith and bassist Jimy SeiTang.  Most of the six cuts have extended jamming and searing interplay, especially on “Cruikshanks” where Chew plays second guitar and on the title track where Chew duels on lead guitar with Cavallo.

The album is both unrestrained and unrelenting as Chew pounds the keys while Cavallo wails away on his axe. “Cruikshanks” has some of the riffing of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post” while “Freely” echoes strains of Led Zeppelin’s third and fourth albums. The closer, “Extra Mile” provides perhaps the best view of the scope of Chew’s piano style as hints of jazz and classical creep in. Vocally Chew has a bit of southern drawl and ample enthusiasm but the bigger attractions here are the dynamic shifts, the roaring crescendos, and the throwback vibe of much of the sound.  

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