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Rocky Mountain Bull Horn July 2003

Trying to Catch a Ghost
What hollow head highway hypnosis radial tire whine
sounds like (or maybe not)

by Dave Schutz

Critics fumble around Grandpa's Ghost like theyre playing whack-a-mole with their pens. They spew qualifiers like psychedelic, roots and slowcore, and pseudo-words like prairie-psych, struggling to nail down a sound that wont stick all its heads out at once. St. Louis Riverfront Times took the easiest approach, naming them the areas Best Eclectic/Unrecognizable act three years running.

Its probably the best approach. More than any patchwork of genre tags, Grandpa's Ghost sound simply like they're coming from a specific place'namely, Pocahontas, Illinois, the town of around 800 people a short ways from St. Louis that Ben Hanna and Bill Emerson, anchors of the ever-evolving group, claim as their home-base. Hanna is reluctant to speculate on the areas influence on his music (I cant necessarily compare to other experiences if all I have is my own), but from an outsiders perspective, it seems obvious.

On their last three albums, all released on Fort Collins Upland Records, Grandpa's Ghost weave a portrait of the heartland, filtered to varying degrees by the push-and-pull of interpreting ones environment. Emerson coined it hollow head highway hypnosis radial tire whine, which Hanna says sums up the exercise of escapism that music was/is for us.

Sometimes its a pretty clear portrait. 1998s Il Baccio and 2000s double-disc Stardust & Smog/Early Autumn Waltz at the Two/Fourteen feel like the haze and heat of a perpetual Midwestern twilight. The amp buzz sounds like insects; guitar hiss rushes like wind howl. Occasionally, its more raucous and ethereal, hinting at the madness of minds too sophisticated to be stuck in the middle of nowhere, yet deft enough to channel it eloquently with guitars and drums. But however abstract it gets, the music always carries the feeling of the fields and old barns of the bands habitat.

We used to rehearse out in [Emersons] garage out on the edge of town, and friends and neighbors would come over and sit outside and smoke bowls and drink Black Label beer, Hanna says. Sometimes his cousin Punkin would cook barbecue chicken and ribs while we played.

Last years (The Tumble/Love Version): Hear Past the Static, another double album gestated with Hanna living in nearby Marine, Illinois. I lived with my girlfriend in a big old brick house on three acres with barns, flowers and too much grass to cut. I could cut through the back roads to Pocahontas (a beautiful drive) and make it to Bills place in about fifteen minutes, Hanna says. He calls the album more of a sonic assault, which it definitely is,up against previous work rumbling along at a punkish gait for most of its two-hour span.

Currently, Grandpa's Ghost is pursuing a reinterpretation/mutation of Edgar Allan Poes The Tell-Tale Heart with Chicago filmmaker Jim Fotopoulos. For Fridays Stockage performance, Hanna is bringing bassist Tobi Parks, who contributed to Tumble/Love, and sound artist Eric Hall for a sonic collage of sorts, incorporating elements of Il Baccio and Tumble/Love. If youre familiar with Grandpas Ghost records, expect a loose interpretation. If not, expect one of the most interesting performances of the weekend.