From the opening slide guitar riffs paired with the crunchy electric fingerwork of lead-off track "The Tides," it's immediately evident that Steel Petals have something to prove with their new self-titled album.
The Charleston-based Southern rock band aren't exactly newcomers; they've been making the weekend circuit between the Home Teams and the Windjammer for a couple years, even winning Trident United Way's Battle of the Bands last year at the Music Farm. Guitarist/singer/songwriter Blake Ohlson recorded a solo disc using the Steel Petals name back in 2005, but their two-night CD release this weekend feels almost like a debut.
"The last album was more of an alternative country, bluesy sound, and, really, all along I had in my head I wanted to do this kind of sound, the harder rock songs," says Ohlson. "That's what I'm drawn to: adrenaline-based rock. There's always a place for a ballad, but people can only listen to so many slow songs. When they hear a strong guitar riff — that's what I'm trying to do. I like the harder edge stuff, but I needed the right musicians to do that."
Steel Petals consists of Ohlson, keyboardist Whitt Algar (a City Paper courier and busy working musician), drummer Duck Reynolds (formerly of The Defilers), and bassist Martin Whipkey. The tight foursome shines throughout their new disc, opening up on tracks like "Tecumseh" to let Algar show off on the clavinet before segueing into dirty, head-nodding guitar solos. Despite the heavy tone of the disc, tracks like "Sunday Sound" and "Tumbleweed" break up the straight-ahead rock with gospel-tinged swagger.
The whole album also benefits heavily from backing vocals by soul singer Ivory Collins, who fatefully happened to be recording at Mantis Records in North Charleston around the same time as the Petals' sessions. Her appearances invoke the Rolling Stones and the Black Crowes, while other slide- or guitar-driven tracks are more reminiscent of Robert Randolph and '70s-era Eric Clapton.
The band describes themselves as a "backyard Southern soul revue," a melding of swampy blues and Southern rock. Even the hardest hitting of the tunes were born on Ohlson's Daniel Island porch, where he relaxes most nights with a lap steel or semi-hollow body guitar after his wife and kids are sleeping soundly.
"A lot of times it's pretty late nights, but that's when I get that creative spark," says Ohlson. "Most of these songs were written after midnight."
By day, Ohlson is an orthopedic surgeon. A Cleveland native, his family moved to Charleston both for his career and the opportunity Ohlson saw for his musical ambitions. It's not uncommon for the doctor to finish a performance, then trade his jeans and boots for work clothes and head straight to the hospital.
Ohlson is intense in both passions, and with Steel Petals' solid new disc, it's hard to wonder if he's ever tempted to drop the doctoring and pursue rock 'n' roll full time. But he's happy to have a growing Charleston following and a tangible record of his musical pursuits.
"The thing is to just keep expanding, doing a little more, getting another step up the food chain," says Ohlson. "Each year I want another stepping stone. You're not going to see me go on tour. I just want to continue to build a really solid base here and offer something a little different than what is currently on the scene here in town. I love hearing people say they like our stuff. It's an awesome feeling."