Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers
American Babylon-25th Anniversary Edition
(Cleveland International Records)
Music: 4 out of 5 stars
Reissue Package: 2 out of 5 stars
Few who have heard Joe Grushecky’s music, or seen him blow the roof off clubs live in his prime, would dispute that life just hasn’t been fair to the heartland rocker.
As frontman first for the Iron City Houserockers, followed by stepping into the spotlight leading his own Houserockers, and then solo, the pride of Pittsburgh’s rootsy rust belt club scene has never gotten the breaks he deserves as a compelling singer, potent songwriter, and commanding performer. Even the ongoing and very vocal support of Bruce Springsteen hasn’t been enough to thrust Grushecky into the national limelight and onto larger stages where he and his arena-sized music belongs.
His last album of original material was back in 2013. But thankfully Grushecky has amassed enough fans to allow his catalog to slowly be reissued. That keeps his name alive and maybe gains some new followers to the gutsy, emotional rocking that has created a small yet fervent cult, and not just from the Springsteen faithful. This expanded 25th-anniversary presentation of American Babylon (1995) is certainly worthy of attention.
Springsteen had already been a longtime admirer when he signed on to produce, play, and co-write a few selections on the original dozen track American Babylon. Sister Pam Springsteen also furnished the photos that adorn the sleeve. The New Jersey icon’s high-profile involvement probably sold a few more copies, but not many, although Bruce appeared as an unannounced guest at some shows on the tour supporting the disc, including the one in this set.
Frustratingly, American Babylon became yet another in a series of near-misses that have plagued Grushecky throughout his career. The songs—while no departure from the usual topics chronicling lives of the working class—are rugged, melodic, and often intense in their blistering lyrics and performance. From touching ballads like “Homestead,” which follows the life of an iron factory worker in almost wincing detail (the dust was so thick you could choke) as Springsteen blows harmonica, to the Bruce-styled “Chain Smokin,’” where Grushecky takes the first person as a depressed man who does the titular activity after his old girlfriend left, this is searing, personal and moving in all the right ways. Rockers such as the driving “No Strings Attached” punch out with tough, raw, sing-along choruses that stick after the first spin.
This special edition adds three terrific demos good enough to be final versions for other artists, pushing the playing time on an already lengthy album. A second disc culled from two hometown Pittsburgh gigs finds the Houserockers, augmented by Springsteen, proving it all night with sizzling live performances for most of Babylon’s tunes. Springsteen checks in by sharing vocals with Grushecky on his own “Light of Day,” which, at seven minutes, ignites with raucous power. The scorching gig closes with a run-through of “Down the Road Apiece,” best known through Chuck Berry’s recording.
Musically, this is a superb recording and a highlight of Grushecky’s consistently impressive catalog.
But unfortunately, the compilers of this package cheaped out on the follow-through. There is no booklet, no liner notes, no interviews with the participants about how the album was created, not even printed lyrics. The five members of the Houserockers, who appear in only two photos, also aren’t listed by what instrument they played; all table stakes for a reissue where the buyer will want to learn more about the genesis of the project, especially with the hindsight of a quarter-century.
Once again, Grushecky gets shortchanged. At this point, he’s probably used to it, but it’s nevertheless a major miss for music that reaches out of the speakers and grabs listeners with as much, and arguably more, intensity as when the landmark American Babylon was first released.
He and this terrific album deserve better.
Photo courtesy Randex PR