4 out of 5 stars
Mississippi madman Jimbo Mathus has come a long way since his 90s days fronting the retro big band swinging Squirrel Nut Zippers, let alone from his first noise rock group colorfully named Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves. He has been solo since 1997, ping-ponging from working in groups as diverse as the acoustic roots of the South Memphis String Band to various outfits he fronted such as the Tri-State Coalition and the Knockdown Society. Regardless if he was plugged or acoustic Mathus kept his music connected-philosophically and instrumentally– to the rawest edges of the deep South’s blues, gospel, rock, country, soul and folk. Still, he is one of the last musicians most think would dive into a concept collection of tunes, which he does in Blue Healer.
Before the inevitable groans start, rest assured that these dozen tracks don’t need an overriding concept to connect. Promo notes explain that this is the tale of redemption by the hands of the mysterious “Blue Healer,” a woman who creeps in on a stripped down backbeat in the title track. As the story progresses, Mathus touches on raw folk (“Thank You”), windswept epic ballads (“Coyote”), bittersweet singer/songwriter gospel (“Sometimes I Get Worried,” the old Leon Russell attack of “Love and Affection”) and plenty of the unhinged rock and roll we expect from knowing his history (“Ready to Run,” “Shoot Out the Lights” and the relentless pounding beat of “Save it for the Highway”).
How much insight you derive out of this loosely knit saga that finds the protagonist questioning the deeper meanings of life, depends on the time spent with the lyrics (not included, but easily understood). Suffice it to say that without liner notes or reading Mathus’ comments about the conceptual arc, most would be hard pressed to connect these songs with any overriding sweep. Perhaps the person they revolve around is Mathus himself, or a thinly veiled doppelganger.
As with any set though, this triumphs due to performances that are alternately rocking and sensitive but always heartfelt. Mathus’ voice is sufficiently flinty making anything he sings sound rootsy and real. The band, which includes multi-instrumentalist Barrett Martin and the always dependable guitarist Eric Ambel, attacks everything with a loose intensity reminiscent of Crazy Horse. They turn up the twangy reverb on the pedal steel driven story of “Old Earl,” nail the slightly inebriated groove on the grinding “Bootheel Witch” and the perfect-for-a-concert singalong chorus of “Waiting On the Other Shoe to Fall.”
One look at the wild-eyed shot of Mathus on the cover is enough to know this is a careening, rollicking and diverse 40 minutes and as such, arguably Mathus’ finest solo moment. The album reaffirms his unvarnished dedication to Southern rock and blues and is a treat for newcomers to his catalog and especially those who have hung in during the occasionally bumpy but always exhilarating ride of his career to this point.