The New Freedom

Digging toward the power source of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, Ethan Miller comes up Howlin Rain.

When you're a guitarist with a penchant for some of the most brain-slaying riffs and solos in present day psych-rock, no one expects you to harbor a love of the Grateful Dead. But Ethan Miller, frontman for Bay Area scorchers Comets on Fire, is not only outspoken about his love of the Dead, he also formed a solo project, Howlin Rain, that is infused with the spirit and feel-good vibe of the iconic band.

The same Miller, who, for the past seven years, has shredded his vocal chords and split the sky with raging, overdriven guitar work, has now made an album that makes you wanna get barefoot and splash in a creek, or get behind the wheel for an aimless, sunset drive down Route 1 with the windows down and a cooler of beer in the passenger seat.

Miller believed the best way to tap into vibes like those was to head straight back to the original Haight-Ashbury power source. "I grew up in Humboldt County," Miller explains from his home in Oakland. "This was before the hippie thing got mainstreamed again in the early '90s. This was in the '80s when it was really uncool to be a hippie. But in Humboldt County we had all these old hippies around us and it used to be like 'Look at all these crusty old hippies; they haven't changed at all.' We were more into punk stuff, so we just hated the Grateful Dead without ever hearing it. But later on I was living in Santa Cruz and couldn't resist listening to them any longer. Plus, there was something really enticing about lifting the Grateful Dead curse for myself."

Once Miller exhumed the Dead, he discovered that the band had many gifts that were often taken for granted.

"They were totally imperfect," he says. "They were doing a more orchestral version of what Neil Young and Crazy Horse were doing, that whole 'Let's-just-get-in-there-and-fuckin'-play-it' thing. Besides the good-time mellowness, I like that there's a peeled-down, individual bravery with each one of them. They may end up looking a little flabby for the bikini shoot as a result, but sometimes it worked."

Clearly, the Dead that appeals to Miller is not the same Dead that appeals to the goofball jam bands. On their self-titled album, Howlin Rain, which also includes Sunburned Hand of Man's John Moloney and Miller's childhood friend Ian Gradek, escapes the dreaded pseudo-hippie ghetto via their obvious and thorough grounding in the wider traditions of classic rock circa 1968–1972, back when pot was still a misdemeanor and the parties raged paranoia-free. Rather than approach the music as a bunch of insubstantial and interminable "improv pieces" for the Frisbee 'n' hacky-sack set, Howlin Rain is song-oriented, emotional, and complex, all while still maintaining a sense of fun.

Taken as a whole, the album sounds akin to a classic rock radio repository. "Death Prayer in Heaven's Orchard" is a Faces-era Rod Stewart rave-up, while "Indians, Whores, and Spanish Men of God" is positively aflame with Hendrixian solos and Cream-esque boogie. "The Firing of the Midnight Rain" is an eight-minute Allman Brothers–informed blues narrative about a fatal love affair. Miller's raspy voice brings weight to such vivid lines as "She said 'No, man, I'll never be your wife/And I got a man that wants to kill you'" and "With his boot on my shoulder and his pistol to my chest/He took my life." It's just the sort of thing the Dead reveled in; a complex story-song set to a rollicking tune. However, no one should expect the record to be all soft edges and sunshine daydreams. After all, Miller is still a member of Comets on Fire.

With that in mind, no one should think the record is some kind of ironic joke; Miller insists Howlin Rain is not a one-off curveball. Rather, he simply wanted to make what he calls "my version of easy listening music." "After [Comets on Fire] made Blue Cathedral," he says. "People always told us it was a complicated listen. My dad would say he put it on and it took a lot of work to listen to. I mean, I'll admit [Comets] is not like sitting back with the Beach Boys or the Beatles where they do all the work and your ears get tickled. I wanted something that would trigger memories and nostalgia, just a simpler listening experience. I hope people get some good times out of it."

Given that summer has finally arrived, it seems Howlin Rain has come at the most opportune time.

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