Somewhere along the highway to hell there’s a dive bar. A place where skeletons and demons gargle fire-whiskey, flick switchblades and drive flaming hot rods. At that bar, you can bet your last dime that ‘Hell’s Hotel’ is playing on the jukebox. Darrel Higham, best known as the gasoline in ex-wife Imelda May’s rockabilly speedwagon, has channelled his life-long love of 50s rock ‘n’ roll and his rollicking guitar swagger into his first solo release in seven years. An album that is, quite literally, fit for the devil.
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Higham has never been coy about his influences. Amongst his myriad of rockabilly endeavours, he co-wrote Eddie Cochran’s first biography. It’s no surprise then that Cochran is the album’s spark, along with b-movies, James Dean flicks and every Halloween cliché in the box. Title track and opener ‘Hell’s Hotel’ about sums it up. Higham’s buzz-saw guitar and Memphis crooner vocals lead the way. An old-school blend of shock-horror lyrics and tittering toe-tapping solos.
The rest of the album treads the line between acid-50s groove and twanging outlaw country, all of it stuck through a greaser’s daydream filter. Tracks like the truck-driving ‘Turn Around And Go’ or the break-neck chandelier-swinger ‘I Found A Smile’ channel that Rebel Without A Cause milk bar rowdiness, whilst the Buck Owens-on-amphetamines track ‘My Old Man’ or the self-professed nightmare ballad ‘Hank Williams and Me’ go for more of the cowboy boots and shuffle beats. Recalling an era when rock and country music were close as kissing cousins.
Thanks to his extensive work with other artists, Higham nets a fair few guests to join him in this hellish house-band. Despite their split, May provides doo-wop backing vocals throughout the album, and adds her patented psychobilly sass to the broth. Jools Holland, the Bacchus of boogie himself, is more than at home channelling Jerry Lee Lewis for the piano parts, and slipping barfight-triggering ivory solos into any song with ‘Smile’ in the title. And for the album finale, a cover of Bill Allen & The Back Beats 1958 classic ‘Please Give Me Something’ Higham goes full guitar icon, and surrenders lead vocals to none other than Robert Plant.
‘Hell’s Hotel’ is not a complex album. If that’s what you’re after, you better roll on past. But ‘Hell’s Hotel’ is an expertly crafted album by one of rockabilly’s modern-day heroes. It’s vintage alright, forged in the fires of Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins. But it has its own soul too. Higham takes the style of music that he loves so much, extracts the infectious energy that comes with the territory, but hammers it into shape and makes it his own. It’s an album for anyone who ever bought a leather jacket, and feels tailor made for parties in the devil’s basement.