On his three previous albums Tennessean Hans Chew marked himself as a piano playing rootsy musician, happy to hammer out an engaging blend of good old fashioned R’nB shoehorned into a contemporary sound. Open Sea finds him ditching this for a new approach although it’s still a good old fashioned approach. Seems that Chew’s been hunkered down listening to a bunch of live albums from the early seventies – The Dead, NY & Crazy Horse and The Allmans along with some feted singer songwriters from that era – and decided that he could pretty much do that. Although his piano playing is still featured, Open Sea finds him fretting away, in collaboration and in competition with Dave Cavallo, the pair of them duetting and duelling on guitar on several of the songs here. Talking to Uncut magazine Chew explained, “I read a couple of bios (on Neil Young and Bert Jansch) and they really inspired me to start playing a lot more guitar. I’d also been hanging out with Michael Chapman who showed me an open C tuning of his, hence the album title.”
The album therefore is an intriguing blend of Chew’s recent influences. Cruickshanks, the second number, rolls out like a cross between The Allmans and The Doobie Brothers (back when they rocked) while Freely’s gossamer guitar lines recall Richard Thompson’s liquid guitar work in primetime Fairport Convention, Chew’s piano (at its most prominent here) brings to mind the Witchseason productions of Joe Boyd. At nine minutes long, Freely meanders wonderfully, Chew’s personal Sailor’s Life. The majority of the songs are somewhat lengthy allowing Chew and Cavallo plenty of space to extemporise, indeed the closing skirl of Freely can be compared to Television’s Verlaine and Lloyd duel guitar attack.
Give Up the Ghost is perhaps the most perfect hybrid on show here. With Chew’s pronounced drawl rooting the song in a southern vein it opens as a gritty acoustic Americana ballad on drug addiction before the band weigh in with some Garcia like cosmic guitar licks over the funky rhythm section. It’s a perfect opener with its whiffs of Leon Russell and Dave Mason intoxicating for anyone familiar with their 70’s work. While the title song flows as freely as a hippie’s hair in the wind over the SF Bay area, Who Am your Love could easily sit on a Steve Stills album. The closing song, Extra Mile, is a bit of a barrelhouse bluesy rocker – again it stirs memories, this time of Sal Valentino’s Stoneground- as Chew’s voice approaches a Gospel fervour on a song written about his father who died when Chew was just a youngster.
Open Sea might be an album replete with its seventies antecedents but it’s an invigorating listen. Definitely recommended for anyone who recognises the many names scattered throughout this review (and on rereading I’ll add Steve Winwood’s singing on the Blind Faith album) but it is well capable of standing on its own two feet.