Dustin Arbuckle (left) and Aaron Moreland: Putting some distance between themselves and a lot of pretenders out there not near as honest as they are.

Stealing Fire From Heaven
Moreland & Arbuckle are no myth, but are assuming mythological proportions on Flood

By David McGee

Moreland & Arbuckle

As difficult as it is to imagine, Kansas’ native sons Dustin Arbuckle and Aaron Moreland have actually topped their stunning 2008 album, 1861, and the timing is right. The duo is now on a label not their own (Telarc, with its attendant distribution and publicity infrastructure) and has a manager that is not themselves (John Hahn, in New York). So it is that when they take a step up the industry business rung they also coalesce like never before as a unit on record (it’s actually a trio, with tireless drummer Brad Horner) behind a collection comprised of typically incisive original songs; a tribute to an essential influence via a set opening howl out of Chicago’s South Side, courtesy a fierce, driving take on Little Walter’s “Hate to See You Go,” in which the dense, anguished wailing Arbuckle divests himself of on harmonica resonates with the spirit of the old master; support of a contemporary whose work remains sorely under-recognized, namely one Ryan Taylor, whose bittersweet shuffle, “Can’t Leave Well Enough Alone,” gets a sprightly, backwoods country treatment, a warm, soulful vocal from Arbuckle and a positively infectious, harmonized chorus that begs to be sung along to (Taylor is responsible for one of 1861’s dazzling moments, having penned the anguished rocker, “Pittsburgh in the Morning, Philadelphia at Night”); and an acknowledgment of their deepest roots, musically and spiritually, in an absolutely punishing, unrelenting attack on “Legend of John Henry,” which is like no “John Henry” anyone has ever heard before, with its fierce, severe Arbuckle vocal more than adequately complemented by Moreland’s rumbling, roaring, dive bombing assault via his cigar box guitar, Horner’s piledriving drums and Arbuckle, when he’s not singing, blowing the roof off the sucker with the ferocity of his promethean harp work. In fact, so formidable is the trio as a unit, so together, so complete in concept and execution that Prometheus does indeed become a logical point of comparison, at least up to a point. Like the son of the Titan Iapetus, what Moreland & Arbuckle are up to here is stealing fire from Heaven and teaching humankind its use. Where M&A depart from their mythological counterpart is in not being punished by God (Zeus, in Prometheus’s case), chained to a rock and having their liver eaten by a vulture. Later for all that.

morelandA couple of points worth noting relating to the power of the trio and the the stories it tells. Flood marks the coming of age of Moreland’s cigar box guitar, which is, for the uninitiated, exactly what it sounds like: a guitar built from a cigar box, with hand-wound pickups and a single bass sting (running into a bass amp) and three guitar strings (running into a guitar amp) on a fretless neck. Its sound is dirty, malevolent, sonorous and erotically charged all at once—it doesn’t shake your nerves and rattle your brain; it hits you where you live. You wouldn’t blame Moreland for getting carried away with the orgasmic moan the instrument produces when he embarks on one of those pulverizing swoops, but being a man of discerning taste he is selective in his wooing, deploying its dark beauty at the most propitious moment in a song’s arc—at the end of a thunderous round of harmonica-piano-guitar riffing introducing the celebration of the sensual pleasures that is the Delta-influenced workout, “Don’t Wake Me,” for example, or with the lightning-strike riffs streaking through the devastating account of an actual, horrific flood in southeastern Kansas, “18 Counties.” But Moreland isn’t all about dramatic flourishes only; he’s a genuinely gifted picker whose authority stems from equally apportioned demonstrations of technical mastery and sensitively considered support, especially when he gets down  to picking delicate, eerie lines on the parlor guitar on “Your Man Won’t Ever Know,” a rather self-explanatory title if ever there was one, or the frisky, colorful textures arising from his jubilant fingerpicked commentary on “Can’t Leave Well Enough Alone.”

But Moreland’s work leads to Arbuckle, and vice versa. In addition to asserting himself on this record as a witty, passionate, intelligent harmonica player well versed in all the appropriate fundamentals that have migrated from Mississippi to Chicago and back in days past, Arbuckle’s singing has never been more commanding. He sounds relaxed and locked in here to an even greater degree than he did on 1861; there’s freedom in his voice—it's evident in the release he anticipates with equal parts dread and ecstasy in “In the Morning I’ll Be Gone” (and in the steady, stout harmonica solo he adds to supplement his vocal); certainly it's infusing the chilling desperation he articulates with the slight tremble in his voice when he sings “rain keep fallin’/you watch the water rise/rain keep fallin’/you watch the water rise/you see it all/you see it all/you see it all/get swept away before your eyes/18 counties done got flooded out…” as the horrors inflicted by nature mount and consume “18 Counties” (a song, by the way, that’s preceded by an unsettling, even disorienting 1:17 bit of eerie, neo-psychedelic jamming meant to suggest looming disaster in “Before the Flood”). And it is unquestionably pervasive in the deep blues moan of a man who can’t exorcise the demons of a failed love in “Can’t Get Clear” and in the articulation of his uncontrollable, murderous—and misplaced—rage in “Bound and Determined,” directed at a love he’s been told was unfaithful, until, too late, he finds out his source was lying. Amidst a furious blues-rock charge, Arbuckle spits out, “My body rots in prison but my soul will burn in hell,” as Moreland’s aggressive, aggrieved frailing on the cigar box serves as subtext to his partner’s blood-soaked soliloquy.

When all is said and done, it’s more than Moreland’s unusual instrument that has come of age here; so have the musicians themselves. They need the rest of the world to catch up and catch on, because they’re putting some distance between themselves and a bunch of pretenders out there not near as honest as they are. You start stealing fire from Heaven, you’re working on a whole other plane.

Moreland & Arbuckle’s Flood is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024