You’d be forgiven for thinking, just a minute or two into the opening cut here, that you’d mistakenly cued up a vintage platter cut back during the 1960s/’70s heydays of Muscle Shoals and Stax/Volt. “Midnight Dream” is a sleek slice of smoky soul aglow with an urgent vocal line, an insistent heartbeat rhythm, and deftly entwining guitar, piano, and Hammond B3. That it’s produced by legendary Memphis songwriter Dan Penn, a firsthand witness to the aforementioned golden era, makes matter all the sweeter.
Tucson’s Hacienda Brothers – formed a few years ago around the nucleus of singer-accordionist Chris Gaffney (Dave Alvin & the Guilty Men) and guitarist Dave Gonzalez (The Paladins)—brand their music “western soul,” and it’s natural fit for a soul lifer like Penn. They even cover a pair of numbers he cowrote with partner Spooner Oldham: Box Tops hit “Cry Like a Baby” is subtly recast as a honky-tonker (the “western” part), while “It Tears Me Up” finds Gaffney channeling Percy Sledge (the “soul” component) so effortlessly that the only thing cluing you in to the tune’s contemporary origins is the steel guitar. A handful of other covers dot the disc, including the Intruders’ Philly soul classic “Cowboys to Girls,” which—again thanks to the pedal steel and Gaffney’ charcoal-coated throat—brings that Hacienda Brothers equation home. Notable among the band’s originals are “Midnight Dream,” the George Jones-like title track, and “Different Today” (a twangy tale of infidelity, with Gonzalez singing lead), all as seamlessly executed as the covers.
This set marks the second time Penn has gone to the well with the Haciendas. I caught him in concert with Oldham earlier this year, and had to tell him how much I’d enjoyed his protégés’ 2004 debut, The Hacienda Brothers. “If you like that,” Penn replied, grinning broadly, “you’re gonna flip for the new one.” Amen to that.