The two most dreaded words one can hear in advance of a new release: “Concept Album.” Sure, it can work for metal (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest) and prog acts (Yes, Genesis et al), punk and emo bands like Green Day and My Chemical Romance have succeeded, but for a roots-oriented band to tackle such an undertaking, thematic options are somewhat slim. Enter Tampa, Florida’s Have Gun, Will Travel.
On the centennial of British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition aboard the Endurance, Have Gun, Will Travel have composed the 12-song suite, Science from an Easy Chair, to commemorate the voyage. Borrowing the title from a series of collected newspaper articles penned by biologist Sir E. Ray Lankester that Shackleton’s crew reportedly read during their trip, Science from an Easy Chair sets out to chronicle the ill-fated 1,800 mile land crossing of the Antarctic continent from sea to sea.
Setting sail with the swaying instrumental opener “By Endurance We Conquer,” HGWT samples Shackleton’s words: “The first crossing of the Antarctic Continent, from sea to sea via the Pole, apart from its historic value, would be a journey of great scientific importance.” Following instrumental passages such as “Surrounded by the Pack” with its hollow banjo and listing accordion, the galloping “A Call to Arms” and the hopeful shuffle of “Fortifying the James Caird” address the various moods, anxieties and hardships endured by crew members of the Endurance.
Take time to consult Wikipedia for background on the above as the lyrical moments that comprise the other two-thirds of Science from an Easy Chair are not exactly derived from Shackleton’s history.
Beginning with the southern-fried twang of “Spirit of Discovery,” HGWT juxtaposes Shackleton’s journey with that of a honest-eyed band seeking fame and fortune on the open road: “Spirit of discovery / Alive and well today / Burning in our hearts like roman candles / Set out for adventure / A half-a-world away / We bet it all / On a calculated gamble”. The fortitude of “True Believers” with its “us against the world” attitude quickly succumbs to the realism of poorly-attended shows in “Madhouse Promenade,” a broken-down tour van in “Goodnight, Sweet Chariot,” the irreconcilable differences of inner band turmoil of “Good Old Shakespeare,” the highway tedium and downtime between shows highlighted in “The Rescue Party” and second guessing on the wallowing “Despair & Redemption on Elephant Island” before salvation arrives with the spirited closer “The Bottom of the World,” saluting “Good Old Shakespeare” as the now-jaded survivors return home, scarred but alive and wiser for their travails.
By using Shackleton’s expedition as a metaphor, HGWT have crafted a veiled biography of every band that’s not yet made it on Science from an Easy Chair. Equal parts history lesson and cautionary tale, Science from an Easy Chair is a more concise outing than the escapist tales of 2013’s Fiction, Fact or Folktale?. While retaining the stomp of the latter album’s “Another Fine Mess” and vocal harmonies of “Fairweather,” HGWT has acutely harnessed its distinct blend of lush American roots music into an over-arching narrative of determination, perseverance and survival instinct.
Now with five albums to their credit, the quartet of brothers Matt and Daniel Burke, Scott Anderson and Jean-Paul Beabien have likely endured their fair share of nights in non-descript towns playing to vacant bars, countless flat tires, sleep deprivation and seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel. As able-bodied musicians, relegating Science from an Easy Chair to concept album status does both the music and band a disservice; having lived these stories themselves, the sleight-of-hand genius of the album’s conceit poses only one question: how can Have Gun, Will Travel top this outing?
Have Gun, Will Travel are currently on tour, playing dates through September. Full schedule here.
Watch the video for “True Believers” and stream/purchase Science from an Easy Chair on white vinyl, CD and digital formats via This Is American Music below.