Review and photographs by Stanley Johnson
Ray Murray & the Bomb Squad’s recent performance at the gazebo in Ballston Spa’s Wiswall Park was also something of a family-and-friends reunion in their hometown, although their was no one in attendance from the Murray family. But that was to be expected, considering that there’s not actually anyone in the band named Ray Murray.
A beautiful evening and a lot of audience support were good accompaniment to the band’s bluegrass-country-blues with a twist. Singer-Songwriter Tim Whalen sang “a song about hunger-driven murder” called “Hunger Drop Swing.” Another song called “If You Leave Me Baby, I’ll Go Down,” Whalen said, was about a man who loves someone so much that if she leaves, he’ll track her down and kill her.
This deadpan dark streak is funny and creepy: sort of an updated take on Appalachian murder ballads and killing-floor blues. The bluegrass playing drove the music along in a steady boogie for most of the set, and its jaunty, happy sound was juxtaposed with stories about a man who carries his dead wife’s ashes around in a bucket. “I can’t say goodbye, I put your ashes in a bucket,” Whalen sang. “I run you through my fingers, but I still miss your touch.”
Meanwhile, Peter Taormina and his guitar were dueling with Nayt Patenaude, Whalen’s nephew, who was burning on banjo and dobro. A solid rhythm section of drummer Dave Tamarkin and bassist Bill Cormier kept the music chooglin’ in vein of Americana-styled jamming, not far removed from modern Hot Tuna with a dose of Doc Watson or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
The band’s experience in bars shows in some of the covers they craft to their own sound: “It’s All Over Now” and an “Ain’t No Shunshine” with some haunting dobro. The harmonies on “Sloop John B” were excellent. But it was the originals that stood out, particularly a heart-breaking song about a young man who has lost his brother in the war: “All I have is a crooked picture in my head, I sit on my brother’s bed.”