Night Beats Roam the Known and Unknown on ‘Outlaw R&B’

Where Danny Lee Blackwell is going, no one knows. And that’s just fine. His is a different beat, a parallel universe of swirling colors and beats rattling like an outlaw across the desert at dusk. For the Night Beats frontman, the band’s fifth album Outlaw R & B (Fuzz Club Records) is a capsule of ’60s psychedelic folk, fuzzed-out rock, and experiential pulses of rhythm and blues.

Following Blackwell’s 2019 release Myth of A Man, produced by Dan Auerbach, and That’s All You Got (2020), born out of the California wildfires near his home, and reflections on a pandemic world in protest, Outlaw R & B clears the dust off these tangled times. 

“Outlaw R&B is music for the borderless, the free, the outcasts, and the forgotten,” says Blackwell. “The outlaw is the runner. Those whose minds aren’t sold by perfect pitch and clean fingernails. Through this medium you can escape the confines of mental feudalism and bask in the euphoric glow of psychedelic R&B.” 

Self-produced by Blackwell during 2020, Outlaw thumps open on “Stuck in the Morning” and into the ’70s fuzzed-out rock of “Revolution,” a call to turn around the present situation by rewiring the mind. Crossing into the psychogenic drifts of “New Day,” is a song Blackwell calls his “song from purgatory,” and one born of sleepless nights resulting from uncertainty. 

“‘New Day implies rebirth, but it’s more of an evolution of the same thing, an impermanence, this concept of staring at the sun rising and always knowing that it’s gonna happen,” says Blackwell. “It absorbs a lot of the elements of what was happening around me—insomnia, and uncertainty—and also a light at the end of the tunnel. The light is more the power to still wonder, and when we stop being able to question or search, that’s real desolation. When we feel like we can’t even look past the horizon, or feel a need to want to recover or move forward, that’s something that I’ve experienced.”

Shifting senses, there’s a more dramatic tonation and psych-gaze of “Hell in Texas” and the surf-psych rock of “Thorns,” an homage to Blackwell’s mother, a former Bharatanatyam dancer, and also inspired by old ’60s Bollywood films and Indian singer Mohamed Rafi, who Blackwell cites as a constant inspiration.

“I tend to write in a more visual way,” says Blackwell. “A lot of times when I hear something, I think about what the picture painted in my head, so the iteration that you hear might not be exactly the full story, but it is the full story because it’s the neverending story. The one that keeps on keeps ongoing seems to find the dragons, but it’s definitely an open, evolving process, so it makes it fun.”

In his experimental bliss, the lo-fi “Shadow” fills the chilled out void with Latin beats, arranged around Blackwell’s vision of “Brian Jones sitting around a pool in the desert singing and repeatedly strumming a hypnotic rhythm when Barış Manço appears and joins in,” through the unsettling tale of “Cream Johnny,” a nod to the 1938 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo with coded verses by 18th-century poet Percy Shelley. Throughout, Outlaw maneuvers its rhythmic grid and space, and subject matter, never tripping on the more acidic narratives of corruption, injustice, and inevitable isolation with “Ticket” addressing police brutality and the discord on the streets during the 2020 protests.

Night Beats Danny “Lee Blackwell” Rajan Billingsley (Photo: Hamilton Boyce)

“I feel like songwriting and arts, in general, is a changing, evolving thing with revolving doors,” says Blackwell, “so the meaning of something can change by the minute. You could write a song about a person and the thing and the place and the time, but the impact that it has on you is amorphous and subjective.”

Blackwell adds, “Any idea that can be contained depending on your day—maybe how your cup of coffee was that morning or you were cut off in traffic—things can definitely change and find new meaning, and that’s the beauty. That’s an element of songwriting that I love, which is leaving a zone for the listener to create their own interpretation.”

Songwriting is like a puzzle, cryptography, to Blackwell. Part of the beauty is being able to observe it happening and realize that there’s a start and there’s an end—a first song and a last song.

“You can interpret things a million different ways, but when you drop the needle on the record, there’s a moment there, where you are in that world, and that’s the thread, that feeling of connection,” says Blackwell. “I’m searching for little bits and pieces on the way, and just trying to observe the life that we live in, and try to find beauty, and try to find darkness and try to interpret those things in different ways. I like to explore, and I like to take different roads and go down different alleyways and different rivers in different places to try to uncover something in me.”

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