Having developed a reputation as a superlative rootsy honky-tonk style pianist – his Life & Love in particular being a record that not only showcased this side of him, but also his fantastic songs – Hans Chew has suddenly taken a left-turn, largely ditching the piano and the upbeat roots r’n’b vibe for a foray into classic Americana rock of the late 60s, early 70s fashion. There is the piano, of course, but it’s the guitars and the intricate band grooves that truly makes Open Sea, his fourth album, and which has been released (like Life & Love) on Brighton’s alt-roots and country label, At The Helm.
Inspired to reach out to the guitar after reading bios of both Neil Young and Bert Jansch (as well as hanging out with Michael Chapman, who showed him an open C tuning, hence the name of the album), Chew’s brilliant band drive down the byways of all-out r’n’b jamming, guitar interplay to the fore. They’ve got classic rock’n’roll in their collective veins it seems. This is no retro retread though. For sure Neil Young, Crazy Horse, Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers. Leon Russell and assorted 60s/70s influences are in there. But there’s also hints of Fairport Convention, Led Zeppelin, Blind Faith and other Brits.
As a sideman himself Chew has played with the likes of Hiss Golden Messenger, Steve Gunn, Endless Boogie and Jack Rose. For Open Sea he has employed the services of other crack sidemen including guitarist and long-time collaborator Dave Cavallo, drummer Rob Smith and bassist Jimy SeiTang. Together on the six tracks that make up Open Sea, there’s plenty of jamming interplay within each song. However each track has also been carefully constructed; the arrangements are complex, the pace always shifting. Remarkably, it’s tight yet feels free-flowing, with barely a duff or over-egged note in sight. They may be musos, but they know the meaning of real flair. Flair that also means restraint most of the time, and only occasionally letting rip and showing off. Kinda like human behaviour.
‘Give Up the Ghost’ sets up the template, fusing Crazy Horse with late 60s Fairport. Its gently rolling grooves, piano embellishments, snaking arabesque guitar lines taking you on a feel-good journey before it breaks down halfway for an extended instrumental interlude, from whence Cavallo comes in with a powerful, distorted solo, the song then entering a final verse, before sailing off into the proverbial sunset.
The band get a little heavier for ‘Cruikshanks’, founded on a driving rhythm a la The Allman Brothers-meets-Crazy Horse. There’s eight plus minutes of pure rock’n’roll the old fashioned way, Cavallo once again delighting with some wonderfully melodic work, as the electric rhythm, bass and drums drive the song forward, similar to Crazy Horse’s work on ‘Down By the River’ or ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’, the pace dropping and rising here and there. Hans Chew and the band are simply brilliant in working on the dynamics, space and textures of a song. It may feel loose at times, but the groove and feel are exemplary. As it is on the extraordinary title track, the dreamy beginning belying the next five minutes where the band get down to some serious jamming, the duel guitars feeding off unfussy bass and drum work, Chew throwing down some r’n’b piano grooves halfway. The song then chugs on as Cavallo gets his wah-wah out, before reverting back to some more Southern fried Allman-esque guitar before, through some convoluted path, the song eases back, mirroring its beginnings. It’s a hell of a journey, a high point of the album.
Elsewhere, the only ‘short’ track ‘Who Am Your Love?’ begins like a Jimmy Page outtake from Led Zep III, just bluesy acoustic finger picking and voice leading this dark and brooding tale. While the long ‘Freely’ is, as the title suggests, a free-flowing jam of sorts, that traverses many domains on its journey; dreamy arabesque psychedelia and waltz, fused with rolling grooves that recall Fairport Convention’s ‘Matty Groves’.
With a voice reminiscent of the gruff soul of Stephen Stills, Chew gives it his all throughout, touching on scenes of drug addiction, the death of his father when Chew was just a boy, and just plain ‘who am I’ and ‘what do I want’ questioning. Open Sea may be very much in hoc to the golden era of free-flowing southern rock inspired jams mixed in British rock of the same era, but there is a strong discipline within the intoxicating and gritty sonic soundscape, the band never over-playing their hand. With the wheat having been cut from the chaff, the end result is an album that would sit comfortably amongst the greats of the turn of the 70s.