When The War and Treaty hit you, you know it.
The husband and wife duo’s debut EP, Down to the River, simmers like some kind of secret home-brew, one hundred proof and burning all the way down to the pit of your stomach. Steeped in the history of the Delta blues, doused in soul sonics, and set ablaze with gospel furor, Michael and Tanya Trotter deliver a heart-stirring, foot stomping, earthshaking performance.
There’s something nostalgic about this band, a comforting blend of Johnny and June crossed with a gospel sing on a sweltering hot Sunday evening. But from the moment the first hair-raising note tears from their lips, it’s obvious that this isn’t a watered down reissue from a bygone era.
The couple holds nothing back on their seven-song debut EP, sharing stories of desperation, frustration, and a few toe-to-toe meetings with the “man in black,” staring them down in their breakthrough hit “Hi Ho.”
All the while, they lift up a joyful hallelujah, displayed most poignantly in the balled, “Til the Morning.” At the heart of the record is one certainty: they are together, they are in love, and they can’t help but wrap up every line and melody in that adoration.
But the all-encompassing juxtaposition of this band isn’t only displayed in their name; it winds its way through the couples’ powerful harmonic connection as well.
Based out of Albion, Michigan, The War and Treaty got its start in a place where love might have seemed as far away as Michael Trotter, Jr.’s home. The combat veteran and wounded warrior tells the story of his deployment to Iraq, the captain who made it his personal mission to return Michael home safely, and the black upright piano, found in a forgotten corner of the basement while his unit was encamped in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces.
It was on this piano that Michael wrote his first song after his captain was killed. Knowing no other way to honor and thank him, he sang a heartbreaking farewell to the man who stayed true to his word. After the memorial service, Michael made it his own mission to sing at the memorials of other fallen soldiers, ushering in solace and respite through song. During this peaceful protest — the gentle, healing power of music confronting long overdue freedoms, injustice, and the violence and disharmony of war — he dreamed of one day sharing his songs and his story with people all over the world.
Then, he met Tanya Blount.
With a voice that could call Sister Rosetta Tharpe down from Heaven to lead the choir, Tanya Blount got her start singing in church in her hometown of Washington, DC, and was already a seasoned performer when she and Michael fell in love.
She was signed to Polydor Records in 1995, then went on to star in the film Sister Act 2, alongside Whoopi Goldberg, all the while continuing to develop her voice and artistry. Influenced by the likes of Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, Tanya infuses her own raw power into the gutsy, aching blues, attributed to years of training in the church choir. She is dynamic, whether beheld for the first time on tape or in person, her voice sliding effortlessly from the soft whisper of a lover to the growl of a woman who’s had to stare down the devil too many times for her liking.
Together, the two present a fervent offering to the world that blurs the lines between the seemingly separate spiritual and secular facets of music: you wouldn’t find any of the songs on Down to the River in a church hymnal, but there’s no denying the soul in their intertwined voices as they plead,
Come with me down to the river
Let me drown away all your sins
Come with me down to the river
Let the Holy Spirit in.
This duality lends a modern edge, the raw and often conflicting emotions of the human heart displayed poignantly. At the same time, the tension feels as ancient as the earth itself. It stands and roars in “Florida,” when the duo wails,
You can’t hold me down
You can’t kill me now
then sits back, sensual and enticing, in “Set My Soul on Fire.” It rambles through the Delta and seeks redemption on “Down to the River,” while “Hit Dawg Will Holla” swaggers with a backwoods, honky-tonk scorn to match the proud defiance in “Mother’s Chile.” All the while, the tension rises, intoxicating and almost overwhelming. It finally comes crashing back down, this time in a rain of piano keys and call-and-response vocals that render listeners breathless and exhilarated long after the final note of “Wanna Get Outta Here.”
Down to the River leaves no questions about life, love, grief, passion, or why Michael and Tanya Trotter sing the blues, unasked. It succinctly wraps up the stories of the two, while encompassing the heartache and joy of anyone who hears. Now, with their first full-length LP, Healing Tide, slated for release in the fall, and the lead single and title track dropping on Friday, June 1st, The War and Treaty admit that they grew even more contemplative of their position as a merged unit.
“It’s all a reflection concluded or reconciled that, without love, existence ceases,” Michael says. “Down to the River was a matter of getting ready for love. Healing Tide is about being ready for love.”
Perhaps even more importantly, however, it offers the same kind of welcoming solace Michael always wanted to share. Does it make up for all the suffering, loss, and loneliness in the world?
But it does look you in the eye and promises that, when it’s all said and done, you’ll make it back home.
Want more of The War and Treaty? You can follow them on Facebook, download their EP Down to the River on iTunes, and check back next week for a full interview following the June 1st release of the lead single and title track, Healing Tide, from their first full-length EP, produced by Buddy Miller.