The collaboration that led to the formation of The Mercy Brothers had its roots in a 1995 New Years' Eve show at Cambridge, Mass.' House of Blues. The Savages were co-headlining with The Radio Kings, a local blues-rock outfit.Hanging out backstage before the show, Whitfield met The Radio Kings guitarist, Dinallo, and they formed a friendship. Four years later, when The Radio Kings were calling it quits, The Savages needed a guitar player. Dinallo, then 33, fit the bill and got the job.As The Savages continued playing shows up and down the east coast, the band began experimenting with a softer, country-blues sound centered around the winning combination of Dinallo's acoustic guitar and Whitfield's rich singing voice. This was the germination of the seed that sprouted into The Mercy Brothers.
The country duo of Whitfield and Dinallo originally went by the moniker of Hillbilly Voodoo in an effort to capitalize on Whitfield's first recording with Russell.
"I had been playing around with the idea of wanting to do more acoustic stuff with Barrence," Dinallo explains via phone from Massachusetts. "In fact, for our first show, Dave Alvin was coming through town touring on the 'Public Domain' record, and we got the opening slot for him at a club here in Boston. That was the first gig as Hillbilly Voodoo."To establish an independent identity that was free of past associations, Hillbilly Voodoo soon became The Mercy Brothers. While Whitfield's charisma and unique voice unquestionably serve as the band's centerpiece, the musical brain behind the operation is songwriter, producer and guitarist Dinallo, an Ohio native.The band's secret weapon, however, was discovered in Norway.
At the end of 2002, Whitfield and Dinallo traveled to Norway for a series of acoustic country shows where they were introduced to Norwegian blues guitar legend Vidar Busk. "We met him in a hotel lobby in Bergen, Norway," Dinallo remembers. "Before we ever played together, we had a cup of coffee and chatted. We could just tell that the three of us were going to hit it off, not only on a personal level, but on a musical level."They brought Busk on board for a well-received European tour and quickly learned the extent of his European fame.
"He was a quiet guy, but the guy could play some serious guitar," Whitfield says, "The more we listened to him, the more we incorporated him into what we were doing. It was a match made in heaven. He's a real cool guy, and he's a rock star. He's a famous, famous guitar player over there. He's got these 18-year-old guys who follow him, watching his finger work on every note. He became the big reason we did so well in Norway."
"It's scary," Dinallo says regarding Busk's homeland fame, "It's like walking down the street with Eric Clapton. We were dumbfounded that he was commanding that kind of respect, and the fact that we were with him - people thought we were just as cool."
The chemistry with Busk felt so right that Whitfield and Dinallo imported him to the U.S. for the 2003 recording of The Mercy Brothers' debut disc "Strange Adventure." The album is 10 country songs written and chosen by Dinallo for Whitfield's voice. Throughout, Whitfield's singing style recalls that of John Hiatt, Taj Mahal and Keb Mo.
"Strange Adventuere" follows the history of American roots music of the early 20th century. From the traditional chain-gang holler "Another Man Done Gone" to the Blind Willie McTell cover "Broke Down Engin," Dinallo brought his encyclopedic knowledge of American music history to the table when he picked songs for the album.The standout track is "Down That Road," a simple country-tinged gospel number greatly enhanced by Whitfield's vocal salesmanship. The track also serves as the bridge between Whitfield the soul screamer and Whitfield the country star.
"That song reminds me so much of the Rev. Gary Davis. It's so powerful," Whitfield says. "That was one song I had to scream on. If I'm gonna do some really powerful singing, that's the song."The Mercy Brothers' take on the classic Roy Acuff recording "Night Train To Memphis" marries country swing with shuffling blues. The band goes to the mountains on the original Dinallo composition "Mr. Johnson," which was clearly influenced by the music of Doc Watson and Dock Boggs.Similarly, the original folk ballad "I Believe I'll Make A Change" recalls the work of Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie in the same manner that Steve Earle's songwriting style pervades the track "Misery Train."
So, with a winning album and a talented new band, what does the future hold for the raucous R&B outfit that put Whitfield on the map? He is currently putting together some dates for yet another incarnation of The Savages with shows already on the calendar in England and Las Vegas. "There's still people out there that hunger for it, that are itching for it, that are sweating for it," Whitfield says of The Savages, "So, that's something that I can always pull out at any time."2004 will also find The Mercy Brothers hitting the road for a club tour of the U.S., and plans are already underway for a follow-up album. A European tour is also imminent where Whitfield and Dinallo will reunite with Busk. They look forward to serving as ambassadors of goodwill by bringing classic American country blues across the Atlantic for Europe to enjoy.
"If we can get more people to just realize what this music is all about, instead of it being just a product on a shelf, then we're doing something right," Whitfield explains.