Numbers Adding Up

inward_city15-60-75 (The Numbers Band): The Inward City (Hearpen)

To understand 15-60-75 AKA The Numbers Band, one first needs to understand the mathematic fundamentals of their name. For in that simple universal equation lies the core of what they do so well. I-IV-V, 1-4-5 chord progression, the standard 12 bar blues progression. And so is most pop music. Cuz 15 times 4 equals 60 plus another 15, or 15 times 5 equals 75. Dig? But to really dig into their music, one has to see them live. Because at the core of the music is a beat, and a beat that you can dance to. I've seen them hundreds of times since that first evening back in 1974 when I caught them opening for Bruce Springsteen at the Kent State Memorial gym. They blew my young, impressionable mind. This was the freshest, most vital music I'd heard from anyone in my quadrant of Ohio. And it was happening in my own backyard.

Back before I got hip to them, both Jerry Casale (Devo) and Chris Butler (The Waitresses) had done short tenures as bass players. A few years later bassist Drake Gleason grabbed the job and it was him and drummer David Robinson that helped the band coalesce into the juggernaut that recorded one of the greatest live albums ever. (Yes, it is.)

I was back the following weekend dragging a friend of mine to the sweaty little joint on Water Street in Kent, Ohio called JB's. It was the blues infused with primal rock fury and plenty of free form jazz that created dance music that was, and still remains, an epiphany. And from there, it was many, many weekends all through the mid to late '70s while in college until I moved to New York in 1981. But it didn't end, as I'd make a point to see them whenever I was back home to visit my family. I'd drag my cousin Carol to join me as she'd been a student at Kent State back when they started in 1970. If available, she would happily oblige me. For her, hearing Bob sing the rhetorical question, "How could a matchbox hold all my clothes?" was worth the effort every time.

The Brothers Kidney -- Robert (lead vocals, guitar) and Jack (vocals, harp, sax, percussion), along with Terry Hynde (Chrissie's brother) have been making the most heartfelt aggro-blues-rock-jazz since 1969. Their live record Jimmy Bell's Still In Town is one of the finest live efforts ever captured on any stage. That it occurred at the Cleveland Agora on June 16th in 1975 opening for Bob Marley has little bearing on the ravages of time, vinyl or digital. In fact, Pere Ubu's David Thomas, yet another NE Ohio worthy of the platitudes, reissued that essential nugget a few short years ago on his label Hearpen Records. 6 songs running 37:54. Hardly the stuff of legend when one considers that back in those days that would be about one third of their first set!

And the critics agreed. In fact, critical acclaim has never alluded The Numbers Band. Monetary success, certainly. But how does one truly measure the success of any artist? Through a swelling bank account, or by his legacy, and how he touched those around him. For many Northeast Ohioans, they remain a joyous celebration of everything that is right with true art. Art that touches the soul. That comforts that soul. That moves that soul. Like the comfort of your favorite pair of well-worn denim jeans. Or dancing senseless in an beer-soaked college bar in the middle of Northeast Ohio.

Robert even recorded and toured with another NE Ohio legend Anton Fier (The Feelies, The Golden Palominos). And Robert and Jack have worked with David Thomas on various stages in the UK and Europe.

Which brings us to their latest opus, 40 years on, the nine-song disc The Inward City. Aptly titled, the band soldiers on as introspective souls. Blues Men in the 21st Century. Peering out from the vestiges of middle age, knowing that all is not right with the world. That the white man's world is tarnished and that the dream is nearly over. All have been corrupted by their ineptness and greed. Men hoping for the promise of the redemptive spirit of the great unknown spiraling out from their tarnished mortal coils.

These songs are more reflective tone poems than the dance band blues frenzy served up via their live renditions. And that's okay. For these songs examine the various hues of their abstract blues. Robert Kidney's vocals soothing and troubled all at once, quite possibly the best he's ever been recorded. For it shows the bands flexing their creative muscles in the studio. No doubt David Thomas orchestrated that salvo. Fran Casamento's rocket shot drum snaps are the only indication that these songs could explode at any given moment.

The chugging, head bopping "Battery B" (by Jack Kidney) opens the disc with authority. Jack drops some tasty harp flourishes to let the listener know what color of the blues will be served. Brother Robert's vocals are pushed slightly behind the mix, ready to jump out from behind the percolating rhythm and frenetic pace. As Chris Butler once noted to me in a podcast interview, "Jack Kidney has the best tone of any living harmonica player." And the chops, too

Next up is the lone cover "Yonders Wall" by Arthur Cruddup and it is slow moan of aggro blues. Robert's vocals pushed up front, half-rapped, half sung; worn like a well-worn porkpie. This is the sound of exhaustion; the wit's end of a love gone bad. Bill Watson's acoustic bass keeps the pocket tight. Terry's alto sax locked with Jack's tenor. "Have I been gone too long?" Robert asks incessantly in the mid-tempo chugging "Thunderhead" and no doubt only his muse really knows. Half way through a beautiful cascading crescendo of lead guitar explores that barren emotive question.

"Nobody's John," another staple from the band's live set, gets reworked into a sparse Waits-like, Ubu-treated burner. Robert's half-weary vocals are more confessional than urgent. I've heard this song hundreds of times, yet David Thomas manages to take it some place new. And in "Heavy Rain," Bob's lead guitar cries and wails in staccato bursts of 6-string frenzy while his mournful, claustrophobic vocals tether the song from flying away. Jack's sinister organ pads along while the tenor and alto sax again moan in tandem. Call and response from a jilted lover?

"From Me to You" is the second offering from brother Jack Kidney and the most straight forward love song moment on this disc. The title sums up those deep feelings. "I know that train is going to run for sure/And bring love to predestined to endure / Nothing's going to stop it / I lost my ticket long ago / Now I know I run these thoughts from me to you / That run from me to you."

"Matchbox Defined" remains one of the band's strongest live numbers. A song I've never tired of hearing or dancing to. For an absolutely crucial live reading check out their version on Numbers Blues (Reedurban). Only on this track do we feel like the band was itching to break out of the shell and jam to a live studio audience. Pity that David and his engineer were the only witnesses to the majesty of this track. This is were Jack lets his harp rip from start to finish, a runaway train of Little Walter/Junior Wells freak out. Until Bob drops his reverb-soaked stingy leads while shouting the timeless rhetorical question, "How can a matchbox hold my clothes?"

"The Tellsusourvision" is pure preacher menace as seen through the twisted reality lens of David Cronenberg. Robert assumes the sermon from the pulpit of Marshal McLuhan's prism spouting that the medium may be the massage but who is actually sharing that massage remains questionable. "Tells us our vision." The bullring placed right through your corporate god's nose.

"Coal Tattoo" closes out the set with angels whispering to Brother Bob. His electric guitar playing an inverted Bo Didley beat. Death lurking just around the corner. The primal blues equation of knowing that life's end offers the beginning of an unknown journey. Is this the redemption of the soul waiting to crossover to other side? Before he can answer that question, the song ends abruptly. And so does this wonderfully twisted album of metaphysical blues. Nothing you've heard as of late will prepare you for the abstract patterns of 15-60-75.

Back in the 90s when I was helming Creem Magazine, Robert Kidney said, "We are not interested in making hits, we are interested in making history." Well, Bob, your history continues to be written. - Dusty Wright

15-60-75 - The Inward City

dusty5a

Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs, and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.

gittin high on the fireescape

throwin rocks at the freight trains

for me the sax was kiss my ass 

i am a solo with this much music 

this much drug and robert the helmsman 

scrugging up his fucking shoulders

at the tempest audience hear me

all the way home hear me tomorrow hear me 

and remember who said it and walters and the 

best taco tontos

and the fire 

just read your piece about the numbers.

had a couple. thought i'd share. 

maybe we have a jukejoint in the sky?

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