Sometimes a band's name is enough for me to know I'll like them. More than a year ago, while proofing the music listings, the name "Pinetop Inferno" jumped off the page. I loved what the words implied: "Pinetop" refers to the buds or shoots of a pine tree, which can be used to make a medicinal tea or whiskey—both good for what ails ya. It also evokes the blues (see Pinetop Perkins, Clarence "Pine Top" Smith), which is also anodyne. As for "Inferno," it conjures imagery of death, destruction, hell—or just good ol' rock 'n' roll.
I wrote the name down on a sticky note, intending to look them up later. I put the note in my pants pocket. Then I washed those pants. Hence, why it took so long for me to get to this high table at the Barbary Coast, to chat with Ryan Hawthorn, one of the Ogden-based band's two frontmen.
Only a week ago, I finally remembered to google Pinetop Inferno. The first video, from the YouTube channel CheckOneCheckTwo, was just Hawthorn and keyboard player Jason Vaughn performing "Six Feet in the Ground." Before they played a note, Hawthorn's and Vaughn's unassuming damn-glad-to-be-here demeanor had already won me over. Then Hawthorn counted them in by stomping on his porchboard, and he played a nasty riff on his acoustic guitar—which Vaughn doubled on the bass end of his ebonies and ivories. I went full Muppet, stomping along at my desk and head-banging—to a blues song. Or was it rock?
Relaying this to Hawthorn while we down our pints, I tell him the riff reminds me of the Kiss song "Shock Me." That's perfect, Hawthorn says, "because my first album was Kiss' Rock and Roll Over." (Dude. What? That was my first album. High-fuckin'-five.) Hawthorn, 45, bought his copy at age 8 using "money from my mission fund." He goes on to say he's hugely influenced by '70s hard rock and metal, like Kiss and early Black Sabbath, "so that's probably subconsciously linked to some of that stuff."
Since rock 'n' roll is rooted in the blues, that was his gateway to it. But he loves both. "I need to kill that stuff on YouTube and put these versions up there," he says, gesturing to the cardboard sleeve of Pinetop Inferno's eponymous, Mike Sasich-produced debut album. The first track, as it happens, is "Six Feet in the Ground." But this time, Pinetop Inferno's at full power, with Devon Lewis (vocals, guitar, saxophone), Ryan Bassett (bass) and Bobby Gilgert (drums) joining Hawthorn and Vaughn. The full-band electric version of the song rocks even harder and sounds even more similar to Kiss (minus, of course, the pomp).
It's not a hard rock album, though. Hawthorn is quick to point out that, although he formed Pinetop Inferno around his own tunes, Lewis—with whom Hawthorn has played in a blues band for years—wrote and sings two tracks; "Abandoned" and "The Hitcher" both rock, but they're more akin to Widespread Panic's Southern gothic jam-blues. And Hawthorn's "I'm Here for You" dips a toe in heartland rock and soul, and maybe jump blues. No matter what you call it, though, these songs just have to smoke live, and Pinetop Inferno is prepared to play out more this year. "We've been told that we set the stage on fire," Hawthorn says. "It's not that we get wild on stage, but the music gets wild on its own. Nobody's jumpin' around or bustin' up guitars or anything. But it's rock 'n' roll."
He concedes, though, that blues is the through-line, and it breeds a communal vibe, fostering unity through music.
"There's a little bit of a universal idea there that people can relate to," Hawthorn says. In that sense, Pinetop Inferno is some kinda musical snake oil—a balm you can pour on a poultice and stick where it hurts.