Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders – The Border Sessions – Album Review
Now what do we have here? It seems like Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders have gathered the fruits of their labor from the past couple years and packaged it all together into a tasty compilation of sorts, called The Border Sessions. I’m familiar with a great many of these tunes in the lineup – our man Wild Bill goes about puttin’ a record into this world the right way by keeping things fresh along the way and droppin’ tons of advance singles onto the internet on his journey towards a new album, so for myself personally, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of checking out about six of these nine cuts before The Border Sessions found its official release online this year. For YOU…this might be a set of all-new tunes, or for the longstanding fans of Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders, this will be the cohesive collection you were looking for that sums up the past few years of music by this band, with a modest handful of new tracks we haven’t heard yet in the mix as well to add even more depth to the lineup of songs here.
It begins with “Today” – which is a track that still jams solidly and holds up strong in my opinion, in addition to being a spectacular start to lead the way through The Border Sessions & get the energy flowing. Professionally put together from start to finish…I never really go back to check on the things I’ve said previously in reviews…I expect that I generally feel the same way about a song at any point in time, and I still love this song now as much as I’m sure I loved it back then. It’s an exceptional cut in the Billy Roberts catalog all-around if you ask me…there’s just something about “Today” that effortlessly infuses a smooth cool & rhythmic groove with the signature sound of this band in the most perfect way. Real natural Rock happening here…that’s what I’m tellin’ ya in a nutshell…fantastic guitar solo, stellar hooks, spectacular execution…I feel like it’s an excellent example of some of my favorite energy in the music of Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders & the right gateway into The Border Sessions. This track is tried, tested, and true – not only does it dig deep into the nostalgic theme of remembering the days of old, but that works an extra magic for me as I listened, bringing back this tune to my playlist once more after having reviewed it nearly a year & a half ago. We all need a reminder of those tracks we’ve loved along the way – and this record starts out with the right enticing hit of that with “Today” as its lead cut.
“Stuck Down In Moama” is probably the freshest in my mind, having reviewed this single in advance at the tail end of December last year. Context always plays a significant role when it comes to the songs on a full album if you’re doin’ it right – and while I still likely feel the same about “Stuck Down In Moama” as I did when I first wrote about it, there’s no denying that it sits cohesively within this lineup of tunes on The Border Sessions & relates thematically. Alright…I’ll be fair…quite honestly, I think it sits in the right spot on the album, and I do in fact think that the appeal of “Stuck Down In Moama” has increased by being a part of this set-list…almost like it’s easier to appreciate now that it’s with everything that surrounds it on the record. Plus…c’mon…let’s be real here – the band is jammin’ it UP and clearly having a killer time playing this song as well…it’s admittedly very hard to resist joining in on the fun that they’re having here, even despite this cut’s still somewhat bizarre theme centered around being stuck in traffic. Their combined musicianship and professional execution accounts for a ton of the appeal here – in the end, I have no problem saying “Stuck Down In Moama” is well worth your time & good to have included.
Now…in my personal opinion, some of the most inspired music I’ve heard from Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders came out in 2020 – so it’s not a massive surprise to me that I still found myself absolutely loving songs like “Today” and “No Love,” which were both singles put out following the stellar job they did on their album The Southern Sessions earlier that same year. That’s somewhat the advantage I’ve got in being a fan of this band since I first had a chance to listen back in 2014…truthfully I know the bulk of the catalog inside & out and have made comments on the music of Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders continually as they evolved over the years. The independent scene is no more immune from us fans having our favorite eras of a band’s or artist’s music – 2020 was right where it was at for me when it comes to Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders, and “No Love” is another highlight example of why that is.
That’s not to say he hasn’t put out something significant in between now & then – quite the opposite really – songs like “Broken Hill” and “Don’t Understand” from 2021 were great tunes from this band and they both appear on The Border Sessions. “Broken Hill” has a distinctly dusty & mysteriously misty sound to it that always makes for a quality listen, with additional instrumentation & real highlights to be found from performance to production. All this being said, the distance between “No Love” and “Broken Hill” in this particular setting gets the most scrutiny as a result of layout – right here on the album, you’re essentially hearing what became a real noticeable shift in the band’s music throughout 2021. While the quality never lapsed – in fact, Billy Roberts and his crew continued to really refine and dial in on their sound as the year pressed on – thematically, you could start to feel the powerful drain that the past pandemic-driven years were taking on the energy and spirit of the music being made. So in the case of a cut like “Broken Hill,” yes it’s as well assembled and put together as any cut from this band’s last several records has been now – but it’s a very weighty & heavy energy that sits on your soul as you listen to this tune. Compared to that upbeat vibe you heard in “Today” as the album began, you can clearly hear the difference that a year in the Covid-era truly makes when you hear “Broken Hill.”
My personal experience with hearing the shift in Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders between 2020 and 2021 came from the song “Don’t Understand,” which I reviewed back in January of last year. While many might not expect it – this is actually one of my favorite cuts in Wild Bill’s catalog without question – and for multiple reasons. Mainly the stunning craft in his songwriting when it comes right down to it – “Don’t Understand” has perspective, a point of view, and it’s a brilliantly focused tune. It also happens to be THE track in the man’s catalog that put us on what most would consider to be opposite sides of the political spectrum I suppose…but if I’m being real with you all, Bill’s one of the most reasonable, down to earth people I’ve ever had the opportunity to talk to & we’ve always found our way to middle ground. As far as I’m concerned, there’s never been anything but mutual love and respect shared between us, and that bond continues just as strongly today, if not even more-so as a result of songs like “Don’t Understand.” So…no lie…personal attachment plays a role here I suppose – this is a special track in the Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders catalog for me that speaks volumes on behalf of the man’s integrity inside & outside of the music – I really liked what I heard to begin with, but the significance of what this particular cut has gone on to symbolize in knowing the guy just a little bit has gone a long way. I appreciate artists like Bill that find the courage to speak their mind, document life as they see it, and are unafraid to share their view with the world – the beginning of 2021 was such an extremely confusing time for just about every single one of us & the details of “Don’t Understand” revealed the first ripples of an effect that continued like a wave across the planet from continent to continent as 2021 carried on.
A song like “Second Chance,” which is the first of the new cuts I’ve heard on The Border Sessions in this lineup personally, is a much clearer example of the middle ground we find shared in common. For the vast majority of the observations he makes throughout the lyricism on this track, I agree with the bulk of what Billy has written into this song and the perspective it comes from. This isn’t to say that I sit here and dissect every single word he ever writes into his tunes – but I do pay attention – Roberts ain’t comin’ atcha from Mars, he’s grounded right here on Earth and makes genuine sense in what he says. I like that you get a great dose of the band united together in this performance…when you listen to how the melody goes on to evolve and the many twists & turns “Second Chance” gives, you gotta salute the way that Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders have evolved to become as tight as they are now. In fact – let’s give’em all a shout-out, because they genuinely deserve it – what you’re hearing throughout The Border Sessions is the combination of Billy Roberts along with the talents of Sophia McCarthy (Backing Vocals), Tanner Lindsey (Guitar/Production/Engineering), and Pat Lyons (Steel Guitar). “Second Chance” is undeniably a varied style of mid-tempo tune that has a dustier energy to it, but it’s played inspired, you follow me? Like I’d get it if someone out there was to tell me that “Second Chance” isn’t the most exciting song they’re gonna hear in 2022…I mean, hell – this track is straight up desolate & outright GRIM at times – all I’m saying is that on an execution-level from concept to performance, Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders display a stoic focus and fiercely subtle edge to their sound that slow-burns right. Take note of highlight like you’ll hear right after the two-minute mark though…the band taps into a brilliantly endearing melodic moment of “Second Chance” that you don’t find too often their catalog as the mood & demeanor of this track shifts and evolves to support the words & Billy’s storyteller’s style. All-in-all, it’s a really well-written song that’s delivered right on target by the whole band – the way that “Second Chance” springs to life and finds its real main strengths around the 1:10-ish mark is perfection.
I dig “The Students” for sure – I like the heaviness in the theme just as much as the sound itself – no doubt that Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders have a real meaty and thought-provoking tune on their hands with this one. I’ll leave Wild Bill to go into the specifics as to what he views as the obstacles that are standing between free-thinkin’ people and what-not, but essentially that’s a lot of what this track deals with…on a broader scope, he’s bringing up important points to be considered here for sure. It’s about where we get our information, it’s about what we do with it, it’s about who we look up to & why, and like many of their tunes as of late, “The Students” also deals with restrictions – but more directly aimed towards the chains put around the minds of millions and the things that stop people from using the smarts they naturally come with. To me personally, almost all of this…theme or concept etc., all falls under a huge umbrella that applies to an even bigger philosophy surrounding how we do/don’t have the ability to absorb & filter information as we likely should have – but I’m not ruling out the possibility that a lot of what “The Students” brings up specifically could be contributing factors to this much larger issue. It’s been a minute or two since I heard Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders really fire up the amplifiers to a nice scorching heat…you can absolutely feel the fire this song comes along with at its most intense, which is brilliantly balanced by the dose of sweetness that Sophia adds to the vocals with her harmonies. I told ya it was a meaty tune! Look at all the thoughts it conjures up in this one brain typing out these words – imagine what it’ll do once it reaches the masses out there! That’s a whole lotta brains with a whole lotta thoughts…and the real point “The Students” is making perhaps more than any other, is the true importance of keepin’em all THINKIN’ as they should be! Debate, discuss, keep them neurons firin.’ The guitars on this cut are some of my favorite to be found on The Border Sessions bar-none – both Tanner and Pat play the living daylights outta this track when it comes time to pack the punch into the main transition…the instrumentation has every bit as much weight & depth as any word could ever say.
Hey man…if you’re proud of who ya are & there’s no reason to change, I can’t say I blame anyone for embracing that & wearing it on the outside – which is more or less what you’ll find from this self-anthem of sorts, called “HillBilly’s.” Is that a banjo solo I’m hearing there too? Dig the extra downhome touch – it’s the details like this that genuinely tie an idea like this together – it’s not an instrument that shows up in every tune by this band, it’s added into the mix here on purpose – pay attention! Honestly it’s a clever add that communicates the point to our ears right away…and overall, “HillBilly’s” is very much the kind of cut that you’d know Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders excel at if you know their catalog as well as I do. This is Wild Bill embracing his outsider status as the badge of honor it is, celebrating the fact that the “HillBilly’s” out there are an acquired taste & if ya don’t like it…chances are it’s best to move on hoss. He is who he is, they are who they are – and if they’re branded to be “HillBilly’s” then you can expect to see that put up in a big ol’ neon sign in capital letters pointing right to where the band rehearses off the side of the highway…you get what I’m sayin’ – they don’t shy away from this label whatsoever, and nor should they. I mean…let’s be real here – you haven’t seen ME call the guy a hillbilly here in this review…these are HIS words, not mine – I’d say it’s more than safe to assume the man knows who he is and likely couldn’t care less about whatever label you feel like might apply to him, and if he sees himself as a hillbilly, then I’m inclined to agree with his assessment & celebrate along with him. This track’s kind of got a unique Neil Young thread that seems to flow through the verses at points too if you’re listening closely…and I suppose you could consider some of the rest to be that Crazy Horse type of influence in many ways as well…there’s edge to this Folk/Country tune that makes a real impact.
Love the backing vocals that drift in like the wind throughout “November Pain,” the final track on The Border Sessions, which I’d previously reviewed back in August of last year. Neither that month nor this month were November while I was listening & writing about it, but I can assure you there’s time for this tune in the other months that surround it – I’ve got firsthand experience, take it from me folks. All kidding aside, it’s a really well-written and smartly executed tune from Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders – a very vivid listening experience with the kind of words & sound you can practically feel on your skin. Love the addition of the violin here…the drums are stellar and truly have been throughout the whole record when it comes right down to it…it’s another heavily weighted melancholy melody, but that’s a lot of what Billy creates so exceptionally well & has been for years throughout his body of work. He’s not the go-to guy for party-tunes is what I’m saying…you want to put on Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders when you want something gritty, real, and grounded…that’s where the music of this band carves its niche. “November Pain” was a solid cut to include, especially given that so many of the tracks on this record were gathered from throughout the past couple years – it’s a fitting end to a highly cohesive set of songs that sound like they really belong in this lineup, and to this moment in our history. No real flaws in the record as far as I can tell…not only have I enjoyed my time with Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders once again, it felt like this album was played on a seriously unified front with focus, skill, determination, and purpose – The Border Sessions is another memorable highlight for this band.
Find music by Billy Roberts And The Rough Riders at Apple here: https://music.apple.com/us/artist/billy-roberts-and-the-rough-riders/819505042
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