When The Steel Woods burst onto the scene with ‘Straw in the Wind’ in 2017 they bought fresh new energy to the burgeoning Southern rock scene – not an easy thing to do with the likes of Blackberry Smoke and Whiskey Myers already spreading the word in fine style. A mix of original material and contributions from such heavyweight songwriters as Darrell Scott and Brent Cobb ‘Straw in the Wind’ was a fine record that found the band equally adept at picking out a country tune, when they weren’t exploring a melancholy Southern gothic vibe reminiscent of the solo work of Zakk Wylde. Coincidently, the band even found room for a Black Sabbath tune with a powerful blues-rock take on ‘Hole in the Sky’ which might well prove to be the first of many such excursions into the Sabbath catalogue.
The Steel Woods is the brainchild of singer/guitarist Wes Bayliss and guitarist Jason Cope and, for their sophomore release, the duo was able to bring more songs to the table and really nail down their sound. With bassist Johnny Stanton and drummer Jay Tooke in tow, the quartet recorded the album in a mere six-day break from a hectic touring schedule. The result is a quite superb record that takes ‘Straw in the Wind’ and elevates the Steel Woods sound to a new level.
Opening proceedings with the rock-solid stomp of ‘All of these Years’ which features the first of many fine vocals from Wes Bayliss – who really could sing the phonebook and make it interesting – over a nice punchy riff and extended guitar break from Cope. ‘Without You’ is even better as a world-weary Bayliss proclaims that ‘You’d better get on with your life, before life gets on without you”. Next up is a Black Sabbath cover ‘Changes’ which to me initially seemed an odd choice but this soulful take tips a hat to the Charles Bradley version, while Stanton’s bass work is the backbone on which Bayliss and Cope are able to lay down a host of intricate guitar textures. The result is impressive and if you thought you’d heard enough versions of this Sabbath classic you’d be wrong. ‘Changes’ sets the scene for a quite stunning ‘Wherever You Are’ which finds the band at their most grandiose as Bayliss delivers a typically impressive vocal over sumptuous strings.
‘Blind Lover’ kicks things up a gear or three and allows Cope and Bayliss plenty of room to trade guitar lines before ‘Compared To A Soul’ adds guitar crunch and Cope more room for some impressive guitar playing. ‘Old News’ is epic in size and ambition with references to “Miss Liberty and the crack in her bell” it’s pretty obvious that Jason Cope, who wrote this one, is worried by the state of the country he calls home. ‘Old News’ is about people learning to get along and that has to be a good thing no matter where you call home. ‘Anna Lee’ picks up where ‘Della Jane’s Heart’ left us on the debut album with equally impressive picking and segues into the pounding instrumental hard rock of ‘Red River’. The guys get all funky as they slip in another cover with ‘The Catfish Song’ by Townes Van Zandt with Cope spitting out lead guitar lines as a harmonica wails. The album concludes with the epic ‘Rock That Says My Name’ which really is exactly what you’d want from a Southern rock band with a biblical verse from Wes’ grandfather just about the perfect way to pull the strands of the album together.
If the album ended here you wouldn’t feel short-changed but The Steel Woods add four further songs as they pay tribute to departed artists that influenced the band. First up is one of a host of excellent songs penned by Alabama songwriter Wayne Mills ‘One of these Days’ which is beautifully performed here by The Steel Woods at their most country, before they repeat the trick and tackle a Merle Haggard classic ‘Are The Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver)’ and the result is again fantastic. Gregg Allman’s ‘Whipping Post’ is stripped back to its core with some interesting breakdowns on the verses before Wes Bayliss adds a vocal to Tom Petty’s ‘Southern Accent’ that’ll be tough for anyone to beat.
This final quartet of tribute songs proves to be a perfect way to end a stormin’ album. ‘Old News’ is a terrific record from a band that is going places. If you like your country to kick or just love the likes of Skynyrd, Hatchet, The Allman Brothers, Blackfoot and Doc Holliday then ‘Old News’ is for you. I've got a feeling that The Steel Woods will be making a few headlines of their own in 2019.