Jeff Gold: Rear View Mirror

Jeff Gold
Rear View Mirror
(Windyapple Records)

Jeff Gold, along with songwriting luminaries including Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, Steve Forbert, Willie Nile and The Roches, emerged from the New York songwriter scene of the early ‘80s very much in the sway of the late great Jack Hardy. Jack famously held weekly songwriting circles in which songs were shared along with pasta and wine, and a consistent message was delivered: serious songwriting matters. 

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It was about holding songs in high esteem, and not taking the job lightly. It wasn’t enough to write any song; it was about honoring the gravity of this thing, and the boundless potential of expression both timely and timeless. Coming in the recent regional and artistic wake of Dylan, and his heady expansion of the folk song, Hardy emphasized always that rising to the challenge was the goal, and anything lesser wasn’t good enough.

It was about making art in the world. Art with reverence for the traditions of what came before, the direct authority of American blues and old folk songs which led to the expansive songbooks of Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and other song heroes. Art with reverence for the craft – those ancient elements which hold songs together – as well as for the energy of art itself, and expression singular to each songwriter. 

It’s the world from which he’s come, and though he’s spent most of his life now in Los Angeles, his foundational journey from the east coast to the west informs all his songs. A transition both physical and spiritual, it’s reflected in the beautiful opening song, “How Fast It All Goes,” which sets the stage for this show. 

I was in my Dodge Dart on a night like tonight
I looked to my left and thought that I might
Drive clear cross this country
Through the wheat fields of gold
Sometimes a dream is all you can hold

It’s a song injected with the real-time recognition that time is fleetly flying by and isn’t to be wasted with fluff.  As such, we get the antithesis of fluff. These are serious songs, but never ponderous; serious in the aim of merging real, heartfelt content with the full scope of song to create something both singular and universal. These songs are substantial, but also genuinely heartfelt. They ring true.

That message of not wasting time is reflected also in Jeff’s production. With elegantly understated arrangements, he builds each track on the solid ground of his own delicately fluid acoustic guitar fingerpicking. To this he brings the great playing of vets such as Craig Eastman (violin), Craig Ferguson (mandolin, dobro), Phil Parlapiano (accordion) and Smokey Miles (accordion).  The great Terre Roche even makes a surprise cameo appearance with delightfully angular guitar lines, woven with Jeff’s part. He also has the great harmonies of Earl Grey and Lisa Johnson, as well as Hazzan Michael Stein. 

It’s his most familial album, which is true to a life he built around family. A happily married man and father of two daughters, he weaves the warmth of family and tradition throughout this song cycle. It’s a celebration of that which matters and doesn’t diminish in time: Love. Family. Faith. Tradition. Song It’s a generous embrace of the joy and sorrow that comes with the full scope of life, the progression of child and son to young adult to parent and beyond, expressed with loving gratitude for the richness of the ride.  There’s a song for his wife of 35 years, Holly (“Between You and Me”), one for his Mom, called “Mom,” and one for his youngest daughter called “Liorah.” (His song for his eldest daughter “Melanie’s Song,” was on his previous album, The Journey.) 

Tear-jerkers abound, all embracing the ongoing journey of life. “Liorah’s Song” is one, with its sweet images of the past, tied to the reality of growing up:

Fly away little girl
Fly into the sun
No more nights of shooting stars
You’re on your own

“Adonoi” is a song of generations, relating the story of his grandparents and so many, who came here as immigrants from Eastern Europe. It details their journey, and the impact of their courage to come to America which still resonates through the years. It’s a song of family and the beauty of tradition, but also a celebration of the American spirit. 

But of all of these, none is more sorrowful than “Max.” It tells the true story of Max Steinberg, a young American from L.A. who went to Israel in 2012 on the birthright program.  Unsure what to do with his life, he found meaning there, and ultimately returned to Israel to become a “lone soldier,” as they are called, an American enlisted in the Israeli army. Tragically, he was killed in action on the Gaza Strip in 2014. He received a hero’s funeral of great proportions, which is reflected in the song: more than 30,000 people came to mourn his death and honor his courage. In language both sadly modern and also biblical, the unutterable sorrow of losing a child resounds like a shofar in synagogue around the Hebrew phrase: “Am Yisrael Chai,” which means “Israel lives.”  

Max, Max
Am Yisrael Chai
Thirty thousand prayers for your soul
We will never forget why you died

Jeff has since gotten to know Max’s parents, Stuart and Evie Steinberg, and has performed this song for their son at their temple. Which makes him officially a songwriting mensch. (Mensch is Yiddish for a do-gooder). 

Although this one chiefly celebrates the timeless, familial journey of being in the world with loved ones, it also reflects some outrage at our current state of American affairs, as this is the world into which his children will live. It’s connected, though comes late in the album, with a consistent focus on family. There’s the visceral inverse of the American dream, “Where Is My Job?” And also, the most rocking and angry song on the album, “Home Of The Brave,” which wraps up this gentle cycle with an incendiary urging of Americans to wake up and drive out the bums. Gold burns like electric Neil Young on this track, painting the track with the focused fury of lead playing. It lifts this timely message directly into that timeless realm along the watchtowers, that place beyond the blues, beyond all words. 

Not exactly light-weight stuff! But such is the Hardy school of serious songwriting. Of all these songs, the one that sums it all up best in a powerful big-picture way is the one that starts this show, the aforementioned “How Fast It All Goes.” A heartstring-tugging reflection on how swiftly life passes, it’s painted with delicate touches, such as the recognition of all ages that live within us as we speed through the journey. It’s one of the finest moments in a beautifully rendered and realized album of great moments. Definitely Jeff Gold’s best album yet. I know Jack Hardy would be proud. 

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