DownTown Blog – No Exceptions

DownTown Mystic Cover

I think it was Bruce Springsteen who said, “From small things mama, big things one day come”…and that sentiment aptly describes my experience with the writing and recording of the song No Exceptions. The song started out as a riff that would become the centerpiece of the DownTown Mystic album.

Since the release of the DownTown Mystic album, I’ve received so many great emails from fans who like to tell me which song is their favorite. Overwhelmingly, the song that seems to get singled out as “epic” is No Exceptions, which is personally very gratifying because that’s exactly what I wanted to make the recording be—EPIC!

UK Americana reviewer Paul Kerr of Blabber’n’Smoke, singled out No Exceptions in his review of DownTown Mystic: “The best example here is the sinewy, snarled blues of No Exceptions and its tremendous harp wailing, guitar thrashing rush which builds into a fine frenzy. It’s a bit like the Allman Brothers doing an Exile on Main St song as the slide guitars lock in battle with the harp.”

The riff that the song is built on came to me on March 30, 2011. I immediately made a quick recording to save it, and the next day, worked on creating a melody to be sung over it. The interesting thing about the riff that caught my ear was playing an F to an A minor chord where traditionally the V (D) chord would go in a standard Blues progression. Once I had the melody I put the song away and didn’t pay it much mind after that.

About a year later I received some inspiration and began to work on a song that would become Some Day. As usual, I began to record the ideas for the song and came across the little riff I had written a year earlier. Now that I was in a writing mode, I decided to put lyrics to the riff and work on both songs at the same time. I don’t know why I do this, but it generally happens when I start feeling an urge to record again. It had been over 2 years since I had recorded the Standing Still album and the rush of new ideas was putting me in a creative mood to start thinking about doing another one. And sure enough, as soon as I started working on the riff song, a new 3rd song began to rear its head.

Robert Allen with Breedlove Acoustic

Robert Allen with Breedlove Acoustic

Wanting to keep in a blues vein, the lineThe road to hell is paved with good intentions” came into my mind. I had heard the saying many times, but googled it to make sure that it was the correct way that it was written, and found that it had biblical origins. The road to hell is paved with good intentions” was something I could relate to and something I was feeling at the time. From that point I knew that I wanted the song to be about going to Hell and that the music needed to reflect that journey. Once I wrote “if you travel down this road, you’ll find there’s no exceptions” I knew I had my title—No Exceptions.

Once I finished the lyrics and began to play around with the song, the little riff started to take on bigger implications for me. The more I played with it the more it became apparent to me that this could become a huge track in the recording studio. I knew that I wanted to make it a planned jam with no less than 3 solos, and include harmonica and slide guitar. Once I decided I would go into the studio to record, I needed to create demos of the songs for Steve Holley and Paul Page, my Rhythm section.

Steve, Robert & Paul

Steve, Robert & Paul

When I cut the demo for No Exceptions, I knew I would be taking the 1st solo and I played it pretty much the way I played it on the final recording. It’s a credit to Steve that he played some of his drum parts from what he heard on my demo, because when we cut the basic track, I hadn’t noticed what he played where my solo would be. It was only after I cut the solo and heard the mix that I realized that Steve was playing to the guitar solo I put on the demo, because even I couldn’t figure out at first how he had managed to play like I was cutting the solo on the basic track, which I didn’t! LOL

Steve Holley

Steve Holley

When we were cutting the basic track in the studio, my main directive to Steve and Paul was about the jam, and increasing the dynamics where the last 2 solos would be. We ran through a few ideas for the groove since I really wasn’t sure about it. Both Steve and Paul had written “swamp” down for the groove when they heard my demo. The real question from me was how to translate “swamp”.

Paul Page

Paul Page

After we had gone over a few different grooves, Steve had decided what and how he would play. He told Paul “to keep it tight” and we were off. The track you hear was played fully in 1 final take. Steve and Paul just kill it and I can listen over and over to the track just for Steve’s drums. After we finished playing, Steve says in his offhand manner “that should work”, and I kept his line for posterity. Given the work we put into that take, it cracks me up every time I hear it.  🙂

Now that I had a finished basic track, I could record my guitar parts and then move onto the next part of the operation—the harmonica and slide guitar. I already knew who my slide player would be, but I needed to find a really good harp player. I had wanted to use a guy named Nasty Ned on a track on Standing Still, but we never got it together. I asked my Engineer and co-producer, Ben Elliott if Ned would be right for the track, and Ben said Ned would be perfect for it. He gave me his cell number and email address. I tried both, but as fate would have it, Hurricane Sandy would hit knocking out phone and internet service for a few days. Eventually, Ned contacted me and we were in business.

Robert & 1976 Les Paul

Robert & 1976 Les Paul

A month after Sandy hit I was back at Showplace Studios. From the vocal to the guitar sounds, I wanted to create the sonic journey of what it would sound like going to Hell. I think the sound of my Les Paul on the solo is the baddest sounding guitar I’ve ever put on tape. After laying down my guitar solo, Nasty Ned came in and proceeded to lay down 5 or 6 perfect takes. He killed on every take, nailing the bluesy wail of a tormented soul being chased by the Hounds of Hell.

Nasty Ned

Nasty Ned

At this point it was obvious how huge sounding the track had become. Now the only thing left to record was the 3rd and final solo—the slide guitar. I already had my man picked for the job—Justin “JJ” Jordan! The following week, JJ came to the studio. I gave him my instructions. The 3rd and final solo had to be WAILING!! Anything less and the whole track would fall apart. No pressure JJ!! LOL

JJ started playing right after my solo and the key change to get the flavor of the slide into the track. I play guitar lines throughout the track and JJ riffed off of them perfectly. When it came time for his solo, JJ knocked it out in a few takes, wailing his ass off!

JJ & Robert

JJ & Robert

When I heard the ruff mix that night I was truly floored. I could not believe what I was hearing! It’s one thing to have an idea in your head about how something should sound and plan it out. But it’s quite another thing to actually record it and have it come together in such a way that you never could dream of happening…and that’s what I was hearing! What did Bruce say,  “From small things mama, big things one day come”?

Ben Elliott at work

Ben Elliott at work

All that was left was to mix it. I had a ringside seat for the mix. Watching and listening to Ben Elliott’s masterful mix of the track was a thing to behold. With everything that is going on in the track, Ben somehow managed to catch all the nuances and keep them in play, given that this was one huge sounding track with drums pounding and guitars & harp wailing. This was everything and more that I could have wanted in this track…No Exceptions.  🙂

 

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