While the body of rock and roll seems so sickly these days, so cancerous, it could be a candidate for chemotherapy, its father, the blues, is as healthy as ever. From the stinging guitar and soul-style vocals of newbie Samantha Fish to smoldering vets like Michelle Malone and Keb Mo’, these days we’re having a renaissance revolving around those three damn chords. And here comes yet another contender: Jeremiah Johnson. And just like the similarly-named movie character (a mountain man played by Robert Redford), this is one bad ass. His guitar playing is sharp enough to behead a bear, his authoritative voice could scare off a pack of wolves, and like most blues greats, he’s been everywhere and is afraid of pretty much nothing.
Not even going nuts. Maybe that’s why he named his new record STRAITJACKET.
“When did I first meet the blues?” Johnson repeats the question I ask all musicians who have dedicated their life to our great American art form.
“I think it started for me, like a lot of future blues fanatics, when I discovered station KC 95.5. We call it ‘The Lou.’ It broadcasts from St. Louis, which is where I grew up, and plays the best blues and r&b in the world. Then my dad, who did two tours of Viet Nam came home and saw I was really into this stuff too. He became a long haired hippie and started playing me the best stuff from his collection. His favorites were B.B. King and Eric Clapton. After that I couldn’t stop thinking about the music.”
Johnson is a new style of blues gentleman. He sports a laconic midwestern accent, rocks a fashionably short haircut, and has a tasty tattoo on his right arm that looks like it’s on loan from the Axl Rose collection. In other words, he’s quietly hip. His singing is a marvel, full of lived-in emotions: the sounds of anger, wisdom, humor and danger, as tightly intertwined as the the threads of a musical lanyard. That’s cool enough. Then homeboy starts to play. And Johnson’s real voice, his sharp, beautifully-articulated guitar playing comes to the fore. Sure the lyrics are poetic and Johnson has a strong, complex way of delivering them, but it’s the guitar that keeps you coming back. It’s as subtly sharp as a Ginsu knife, as funky as a plate of three week old grits, and howls like a demented coyote. Maybe you’ve heard all these constituent parts before, but never combined with so much ease.
The generous Midwesterner is quick to hand off the credit for the sound of his guitar playing (the whole record really) to the recording skills of his producer, veteran Mike Zito. “So many of the tracks sound live,” says Johnson, “because a bunch of them are. Before I had the time to overthink these songs, we just started tracking stuff. Also, there’s a lot of pain in these songs, and Zito purposely recorded us live to really capture the authentic emotion of the tunes.”.
Louis Armstrong use to say, ‘If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.’ This certainly seems to be the case with Johnson. Clean and sober now, he’d be the first to tell you he did a long intense tango with mushrooms and alcohol when he was younger. Sure it scuffed up his soul. But it also gave his writing, singing and playing, a photorealism that is truly authentic.
Take the title song which kicks off the disc. Combining a funky backbeat, a blistering comment on some dishonest girl and the terrifying image of the straitjacket, it’s clear this guy hasn’t just been playing Yahtzee all these years. Then there’s the moody “Blues In Her Eyes.” I’ve not heard as empathetic a tune, about anyone in any genre, in a long long time. The tune seems almost written as if to show the listener that the blues is not all about drinking, infidelity and other ugly bits of business. It can about kindness too. Sure, the lyrics are on ‘Blues’ are wonderful. But Johnson’s scorching guitar solo is as eloquent as anything you can do with words. Then there’s what might be the most controversial tune on the disc. Called “Believe in America,” this ballad comes at a crucial time in our history. When you have a leader with the IQ and sensitivity of Sgt. Rock, it’s easy to forget you can love the United States, even if you can’t stomach its leader. This heartfelt tune might just remind you of that essential little fact.
“It’s hard to convey how real this record is without sounding like you’re in a straitjacket yourself,” says Johnson, sort of kidding and sort of not. “But the pain and confusion is that real. It doesn’t hurt that backing me are the scorching sounds of Frank Bauer (sax and vocals), Benet Schaeffer (drums) and Tom Maloney. You couldn’t find a more sympathetic backing band if you looked for years.”
Put these combustible elements together with Mike Zito’s production and you have a bluesy disc like nothing else you’ve heard in a long time. And so full of wonderful contradictions. It’s live but meticulously-played, bluesy but full of hope, patriotic without getting all rednecky on you. So here’s to our explosive and divided America. Our reds, our whites, and especially our blues. Put on Jeremiah Johnson’s new album. And a magical thing happens. You feel, you just kind of feel, like this whole crazy, dangerous, messy bunch of us Americans might just make it until tomorrow. After that? Who knows? Hey, dudes, let’s not get ahead of our ourselves. One day at a time. Okay?