Muddy Ruckus. Photo by J. Elon Goodman.

By design, the opening three tracks of Muddy Ruckus' self-titled debut are meant as an introduction.

But it might be more accurate to say that they're a reintroduction - particularly for the Quad Cities. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Ryan Flaherty hails from these parts, and the album and a September 19 performance at Rozz-Tox will show what he's been up to in the decade-plus since he left.

It's been a winding path, both geographically and musically. He traveled extensively - with stops including the Grand Canyon, California, Tennessee, and Europe before settling in New England - "soaking up as much experience of life and in music as possible," Flaherty said in a phone interview last week.

The blues of his 2002 solo album Dimestore Blues represented a starting point, a singer learning to play guitar. In Europe he was exposed to the gypsy jazz rooted in the music of Django Reinhardt, and "I got really sucked into that style for the last 10 years or so."

He played in bands but returned to songwriting in the past few years, releasing several additional solo albums. That transition, he recalled, was facilitated by his playing: "I'm actually getting pretty good at guitar now. Maybe I should go back to my own music and start writing again."

And last year, he chose the moniker Muddy Ruckus - a name that applies to his current trio (which features singer Erika Stahl and bassist Brian Durkin) but also to Flaherty by himself. "I wanted to come up with something that I could just do for the rest of my life," he explained. "No matter who I played with - whether I'm solo or with a band - I could say, 'This is Muddy Ruckus. I'm Muddy Ruckus.'"

The arrival of Muddy Ruckus, then, can be seen as an evolutionary marker - especially in the context of a debut album that feels fully formed.

It starts with rollicking gypsy jazz of "Crawl on the Ceiling," an impossibly ebullient celebration that pairs its party energy with tight singing and musicianship. "Come with Us" - which Flaherty thought would kick off the album - follows with a longing made hypnotic by the vocal harmonies. And "Ruby Red" returns Flaherty to his blues origins before stomping all over them in a blistering rockabilly back end.

"I feel like those three elements are kind of weaved in and out of all my songs," Flaherty said of Muddy Ruckus' opening trio of tracks. "I feel like if you listen to those three songs, you can kind of get the gist of where the whole album is."

The contributions of Flaherty's bandmates are essential. The record is unimaginable without Stahl's sweet singing, and Durkin's bass combines with the guitarist's percussive style to form a sturdy spine - and keeps up with some breakneck tempos. Fiddle, percussion, and pedal steel provide just the right amount of Americana augmentation and drive on more-straightforward songs, while the muted tension of "Convalescent Angel" exploding into jagged fragments suggests an experimental rock band - Tom Waits through Nine Inch Nails.

On "Worse Things," busy, detailed acoustic guitar is contrasted with a low drone underneath, and in between are the vocals of Flaherty and Stahl, conveying simple wisdom and reassurance: "Well, there's worse things than bein' afraid / You could be trapped under all that you've made."

As strong as the arrangements are, Flaherty's mature songcraft and vocals shine brightest. "Bulldozer" initially chugs along as a cheerful kiss-off to an unhappy childhood: "I grew up poor on a dead-end street / Bad people, bad livin', bad all around me" and "I didn't care about water, food, money, or my drugs / I just knew I was escapin' from that shitty place that I grew up."

But Flaherty's voice and lyrics bring additional dimensions to the song - a rapid-fire torrent of memories, regrets, and destruction delivered with casual precision, creating the impression of a narrator who's too busy moving on to ever actually live his life.

Throughout the album, his singing has a rich, compelling artlessness, by which I mean that he's perfected this slightly gruff, seemingly effortless and natural vocal style that likely requires a great deal of work - particularly given the volume of words he gives himself. This lends many songs an offhanded, nearly spontaneous charm, an in-the-moment vitality.

But if Muddy Ruckus plays as evidence that Flaherty has grown comfortable in a multifaceted musical identity, the singer/songwriter said he's still searching: "I feel like I'm finding it more and more. I feel like I'm getting closer and closer to it."

Muddy Ruckus will perform on Friday, September 19, at Rozz-Tox (2108 Third Avenue, Rock Island; The 8 p.m. all-ages show also features Steven M. Krug Jr., and cover is $5 to $10.

For more information on Muddy Ruckus, visit

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