The Gibson Bros.
Build a Raft
Columbus Discount

Of all the recent rash of reunions that have taken place, this past summer’s Gibson Bros. one-off was an event as singular as Haley’s Comet. From my perspective, it was as monumental as those regroupings by My Blood Valentine and Pavement, and something to which I thought I would never bear witness. Playing in a parking lot in Columbus, though, their half-hour set was unsurprisingly unassuming, with little hysterics or sentimentality diluting the waters. The Gibson Bros. have long represented the Columbus archetype of crosswired country and indie rock influx. The rickety ruckus they created during their brief spell in the ’80s meshed everything from Blind Lemon Jefferson to the Minutemen to Public Enemy with a wry bent that was humorous without being ironic (the plague of the 21st century). To the untrained ear, they might have come off as hicks playing it cool or, the opposite, hep cats fucking with the Appalachian idioms that are unavoidable in Ohio if only you train your ear for them. But the Gibsons were neither, just true-blood aficionados able to translate the musical strains running through Central Ohio like the great Olentangy.

The Gibsons’ reunion was partially spurred by the fact that Columbus Discount Records would be reissuing Build a Raft, the band’s cassette-only debut. Originally issued in 1986 by Mike Rep, who also helped engineer the album, on his Old Age label, the album has obviously been lost for most of that time, whatever number of tapes Rep made held onto by those lucky enough to procure copies. And though a couple of these tracks would end up on their “proper” releases, the versions here show a wily spirit that was subsequently sanded down to a small degree. This is the original band—singer and guitarists Jeff Evans and Don Howland, guitarist Dan Dow and drummer Ellen Hoover—and not the Jon Spencer version that later posthumously got some recognition due to his fame, and that lends to the provincial accents.

A two-album set, Build a Raft’s first slab covers the original cassette version, while the second record’s six tracks are half derived from a 7-inch and half outtakes. Side A was recorded in Rep’s studio barn in Harrisburg, Ohio, and while his set-up’s limitations are still evident, the remastering adds enough contrast to help up the cogency of what the Gibsons laid down. “Big Pine Boogie” and “Mississippi Bo Weevil,” which features Rep on rocking chair and Tommy Jay thigh-slapping, sound particularly vibrant, and it’s hard to tell that this tape has been sitting around gathering dust for 20-plus years.

The second side mixes live recordings from ’85 done at Bernie’s, a Columbus dive that is one of the few landmarks from the Gibsons’ time still standing, and Avondale Elementary School (where the album’s accompanying live photos were taken). The muddy sound does nothing to tarnish the band’s output, and songs like the version here of “Rubber Room” show the band’s live giddy-up go.

Just having Build a Raft back in circulation is treat enough, so the second disc is pure gravy. The A-side’s trio of cuts come from the same Harrisburg sessions, so it seems odd that “Hot Dog” and “Rubber Room” were left off the original cassette. The mix of knocking drums and rambunctious guitar strumming on the former and the brooding clamor of the latter are highlights, but maybe they thought they were meant for the charts if issued as a single. The three bonus tracks on the flip have never been issued elsewhere as far as I know, although a live take of “My Young Life” does lead off Columbus Soul 85, the In the Red live album recorded during the same period. Of course, “16 Tons” is a reading of the song made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford, and led by Evans, the group darkens the song to match its coal mine theme. “Parchman Farm” is another standard, and “My Young Life” is good as anything else here, Howland singing about being an early bloomer over a marching beat and cranky guitar squawks.

It’s safe to say that there will never be another band like the Gibson Bros. Even when delving into country and blues standards, they created something wholly unique, while completely avoiding pretensions. (One gets the sense that they couldn’t have copped any affectation if they tried.) As Build a Raft illustrates, there was something synonymous between their efforts and those of their luminaries, even if they were plying their trade further north in a college town. The Gibsons were under-appreciated in their time, so perhaps now they will get their due, however incrementally.
Stephen Slaybaugh