Evan Barber's album has many highlights

On a recent trip home from Alabama -- through Birmingham, as fate would have it -- I happened on a radio station playing new music by off-the-radar artists.

A song about "finding my way back to Birmingham" stuck with me, one of those that you instantly like, and I remember planning to call the radio station and ask whose song it was.

Flash forward a few weeks, and I'm listening to Albany artists Evan Barber & the Dead Gamblers' self-titled debut disc, and low and behold that same song hits me. It's called "Birmingham," and it's just one of several highlights on an album that deserves a wide audience.

The 12 songs on Barber and the Gamblers' first full-length disc together were written by the singer, and the album was engineered by Ed McRee at his Albany studio. It's chock full of goodies that bring to mind acts as disparate as Better Than Ezra, Dire Straits, Leon Russell, the Lost Trailers and especially The Band. But while there are subtle reminders of these acts, the songs are by no means dirivitive.

"I read an interview with (guitar great) Derek Trucks, and he said when you're writing music you have to be careful what you listen to," said Barber, who except for a brief period when he was in Athens has lived in Albany all his life. "He said your brain soaks up the music you're listening to like a sponge, and if you're not careful it will squeeze that music back out when you're trying to create something of your own.

"I would hate for anyone to think our music sounds exactly like someone else, but having points of comparison can be a good thing. It gives people who haven't heard our music a reference point."

The songs, and Barber's distinctly Southern voice which at times brings to mind Leon Russell, are the standouts on Evan Barber & the Dead Gamblers, a collection of bassist Blane Johnson, who like Barber is from Albany, guitar wiz Zack Gamble and drummer Wynn Hyatt, both of whom are from Columbus. But each accomplished player has his moments over the course of the album.

Gamble's guitar rings like a modern-day Mark Knopfler on "Stiletto," one of several tracks that vie for honors as the album's best, heads into Robbie Robertson territory on "Bogen Man Friday" -- another standout track -- and "Drip/Time," and goes all Southern rock on "Ammunition" and "Tuxedo."

Johnson and Hyatt provide a backbeat that flows seemlessly into the mix but often demands attention. Hyatt's drumming on the jazzy "Haltin Move" is excellent, and Johnson stands out on "Circles."

In addition to "Birmingham" and "Bogen Man Friday," "Ammunition," "Angeleah" and "Perfume and Whiskey" vie for top song honors. Art being subjective, I'd go with the slow waltz of "Perfume" as my current favorite. Barber's acoustic and McRee's guest steel guitar give the song a nice country-cool feel.

In a musical landscape overrun with soundalike hip-pop and industrialized auto-tuned dance music, "Evan Barber & the Dead Gamblers" is the real deal, the album Better Than Ezra wishes it had made after "Deluxe." And that's a good thing.

(Copies of the album and other EB&DG merchandise are available at www.evanbarber.com, on the band's Facebook page or at one of their live shows.)

-- Carlton Fletcher