Fans of live music, particularly in Birmingham but also at festivals around the country, will almost certainly have encountered Rhino And The Ranters with their unique brand of gospel cowpunk blues. Although best known for raucous live shows with the full band, frontman Ryan John Webb has been known to play the occasional solo gig. Indeed, one of my favourite performances of last year was his busking set on the streets of Kings Heath for Record Store Day. After ten frantic years the Ranters have finally called it a day, going out on a high with a farewell gig at the Hare & Hounds in August. They will be greatly missed but their manic singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist is still very much in action with the imminent release of this four-track solo EP.
The journey starts off in familiar territory with the gypsy-tinged "Guajira", a song that regularly featured in the band's live set. While still relatively upbeat, without the full band the sparse instrumentation means R John's voice takes on a plaintive tone, the sound of a man desperate to flee from his past but unsure where to run.
Next up comes something of a surprise in the form of "We Are The Subterraneans". A quick glance at the setlists I've picked up at recent shows suggests this is the only song here that I've not heard before. The jaunty piano is reminiscent of Bowie circa "Hunky Dory" and then the gravelly vocals kick in. This is the voice of an outcast, feeling at odds with society but at the same time taking comfort in the fact that there are other misfits who will outnumber and outlive the "normal" folk. The outsider theme continues on "Deadlands", a great slice of Americana that brings to mind the film "Deliverance".
Part of the beauty of this EP is the way the running order has been sequenced. There's a natural progression between the tracks that is the exact opposite of a Ranters gig. Unlike the live shows, which would build to a ferocious climax, over the course of four songs the mood gets gradually more maudlin and finishes on an emotional low (but musical peak) with "These Strings Of The Old Guitar". It opens with a lonesome harmonica, then the most impassioned vocals we have yet heard from our storyteller as he finally accepts that his past life and former friends are gone for good. As that harmonica draws the story to a close, we're left with a vague sense of hope that R John will now be able to turn his life around.
It goes without saying that this EP is a must for anyone who has enjoyed the Ranters' live shows. It will also be of interest to fans of Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Woodie Guthrie, in fact songwriters from any decade of the 20th century. "The Bridge" is released on October 14th through iTunes, Spotify and other digital platforms. R John Webb plays at JW Evans Silver Factory in the Jewellery Quarter on October 10th with more shows planned later in the year. To keep up to date with his activities, you can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.