Eric Ambel: The Swiss Army Knife of Roots Rock

By Blaine Schultz

If Eric Ambel’s name does not ring a bell, consider that since 1981 he has toured and made records with the likes of Joan Jett and Steve Earle. Yes, Ambel has been a Blackheart and a Duke. He has been a member of the Del-Lords and the Yayhoos (with Georgia Satellite Dan Baird). His mentors as a producer include Ritchie Cordell, Lou Whitney and Jim Dickinson, and he has produced albums for The Bottle Rockets, Mojo Nixon, Marshall Crenshaw and Nils Lofrgren.

Technically a Batavia, Illinois ex-patriate, Ambel spent his summers in Fontana, Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Geneva. For sixteen years (until rising rents shut them down) Ambel co-owned the Lakeside Lounge, perhaps NYC’s most-music bar featuring live music.

For the last fifteen years Ambel has co-owned and operated Cowboy Technical Services, a recording studio in Brooklyn. As a player himself, his perspective offers advantages.

“At my place I have a lot of instruments and amps,” Ambel said “I might only use that electric sitar a couple times a year, but when David Hidalgo walked into my place that’s the first thing he grabbed. Whatever it takes to be inspired.”

Somewhere along the way, Ambel found time to record his fourth solo album, “Lakeside.”

A few years ago ex-Squirrel Nut Zippers leader Jimbo Mathus recorded an album with Eric at the board, and when the time was right Mathus returned the favor.

“I had been thinking about having Jimbo produce me since I produced his ‘White Buffalo’ record,” Ambel said. “I needed Jimbo in NYC for some session work and it seemed like a good time to do some recording for me. That was it.”

With help from Phil Cimino on drums and Keith Christopher on bass, Mathus pitched in where needed with Ambel handling most guitar and bass duties.

“Here Comes My Love,” ramps things up to a nice start. With a laid back groove and slow rolling drums, add Ambel’s relaxed vocals and this platter could be bouncing off a satellite in Shreveport, circa 1964. “Hey Mr. DJ,” and its sardonic viewpoint might very well be the result of working with Bottle Rockets Brian Henneman. The punchy low end guitar riffage of “Have Mercy,” nails a timeless rock sound, while “Let’s Play With Fire,” has a Telecaster twang.

The ten song album really is an album. The vinyl version is a limited, signed, and numbered LP that includes a download card with links to both CD quality and Hi-Res 192/24 bit digital versions of the album.

The vibe of the album reflects an intuitive, from-the-gut approach. “Massive Confusion,” nods to the long shadow of the Ramones clocking in at 1:56 and “Money,” is a power trash take on the Barret/Strong standard.

“My last solo record, 2005’s ‘Knucklehead,’ was a collection of songs from different sources and sessions,” Ambel said. “As I thought about making a new record I knew I wanted to have a producer rather than do it myself, and I wanted to record quickly in a batch of one or two sessions.”

Ambel’s experience behind the board translates well to the other side of the glass.

“There’s always something new in the studio. I’m fortunate to work very often producing lots of great artists. There’s no one way to work,” he said. “You have to have a good plan, but keep your mind open for the unexpected.”

There were times when he acknowledged his name was going on the front of the record and Mathus’ <was going on the back.

“I was happy to have Jimbo let me know when he thought that take was ‘the one,’ or to have him suggest a part or an instrument. It was great to have a conversation with another person instead of myself.”

They made some inspired choices.

Ambel’s cover of Gillian Welch’s “Miss Ohio,” builds and morphs into a massive guitar solo, one that eventually quotes from “Hey Joe.” Not bad for a guy who once claimed he couldn’t play Hendrix. The strident drumming of “Don’t Make Me Break You Down,” offers up a claustrophobic compressed groove, complimented by guitar tone not far removed from that of Neil Young. This is the sound of a tremolo-throbbing amplifier on the verge of blowing up.

Yet “Buyback Blues,” is the album’s centerpiece, a towering minor key tune that sounds like Albert King in an unhappy mood. Like those old Slim Harpo records, you’d swear you can hear the weather on this one.

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