Tony Peyser's "Blue State Jukebox"
September 22, 2005
Eliza Gilkyson's "Paradise Hotel"
Tony Peyser's "Blue State Jukebox" Review -- September, 2005 Edition
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Before I get started here, I need to mention my Hurricane Katrina "lost & found."
Sadly, we lost Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, a classic New Orleans voice. He'd been in poor health, was evacuated from Slidell, Louisiana to his brother's house in his hometown of Orange, Texas. The strain was too much and Brown died shortly thereafter on September 10 at 81. Adept in blues, country, bluegrass and swing, he was an enormous talent on not just guitar but also violin and viola. And he could, as they say, sing a little, too. Long Way Home, a 1996 recording, shows Brown in fine form as he plays with some true musical giants who were also huge fans of his: Ry Cooder, Leon Russell and Eric Clapton. Across many styles of music over many years, Brown cast a long and lively shadow.
Happily, we found Allen Toussaint, one of the Big Easy's legendary songwriters and producers. In the early days of Katrina, he was among the missing and it wounded me as if he were an old friend, not just a musical hero. Toussaint's wide-reaching credits are among the most dumbfounding in modern music. His many songs include "Mother-In-Law," "Working In A Coalmine" and "Yes We Can" and he produced LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade." On September 20, Toussaint was on stage at Madison Square Garden for a Katrina pay-per-view benefit aptly entitled From The Big Apple To The Big Easy. (The taped show took place on September 17.) The many acts on stage included The Meters, the folks who created and epitomized strutting New Orleans funk. (Do I have to tell you who their producer was?)
Moving right along, L.A.-raised Eliza Gilkyson is a longtime Austin resident and someone whose new albums I always look forward to. She's smart, writes from the heart and her somewhat raspy voice possesses a raw, quiet power. While critics have often sung her praises, Gilkyson's the kind of singer who has clocked in a lot of frequent flyer miles below the radar of mainstream listeners. But, lo and behold, last year changed everything: Land Of Milk And Honey was nominated for a best contemporary folk Grammy. Gilkyson has made nine albums since 1987 and they just keep getting better and better.
This isn't exactly a total surprise: she hails from a musical family. Her father, Terry, was an accomplished songwriter whose musical bio includes "Memories Are Made Of This" for Dean Martin and "The Bare Necessities" from the Disney movie, "The Jungle Book." Her brother, Tony, is an in-demand guitarist who's perhaps most well-known for a stint in the take no prisoners L.A. band, X. The Gilkyson family business has additional practitioners in Gilkyson's son Cisco (her drummer) and daughter Delia, both of whom (along with their uncle Tony) perform on Paradise Hotel.
On the opening track, "Borderline," Gilkyson ponders love later in life: "Baby I don't want you to see me this way/So vulnerable I give my heart away/And it makes me weak/Used to be I was the Rock Of Gibralter/Now I stumble over my feet/And falter when I try to speak." To people first hearing her, Gilkyson announces she doesn't shy away from revealing herself. Equally clear is her gift at the craft of songwriting. (Gilkyson even kinda yodels a bit here and pulls that off as well.) The flip side --- or maybe just another side --- of love is on display in "Think About You." It contemplates moving on from romance as opposed to moving into it. And along the way, Gilkyson offers some wise general life advice: "Gotta turn my collar into the wind/Turn my lover into a friend/Turn my loss into a win … " This song is another keeper.
The haunting fourth track harkens back to the Seventies --- the 1770s. "Jedidiah 1777" is based on letters Gilkyson found by a distant relative who fought with George Washington. I don't mean they argued; Jedidiah was one of our founding father's men during the Revolutionary War. The song comes to life vividly --- even though many of the surroundings are drab --- with lyrics like "wet boots and his wool coat coming apart at the seams ... what else can a man live on but his dreams." The snap the song is imbued with is also due to Gilkyson's choice of mostly old instruments, including ocarina, pennywhistle and most memorably a pump organ. The resulting sound is so appropriately primitive that I wondered if this track had been laid down at The Ye Olde Recording Studio in Valley Forge.
The album closer, "When You Walk On," stunned me. Gilkyson ponders the afterlife and lines like this make a case for not being afraid of death: "Though the world you leave behind you/Will become a distant sun/Every soul you loved will find you/When you walk on." Those lines are as lyrical as any famous poem I ever was assigned to read in an English class and provide real comfort with regard to conceivable goings-on in the
great beyond. In time, I imagine a lot of folks who've lost people close to them will pass this song on to others in the same boat. It's a literal lifesaver.
Impressively, Gilkyson manages to include two other songs with equal power. "Man Of God" (which most reviewers have rightfully singled out) is the kind of political track that inevitably winds up in this column. Her last CD had "Hiway 9," in which a genteel melody hit the Bush administration upside the head with a musical two-by-four. But "Man Of God" tops that.
With some spooky guitar licks and a menacing harmonica, the song shimmers into view like a spaghetti western gunslinger who shows up when the smoke clears in the heat of battle. Its tightly-wound attack on the White House is so quotable that I feel remiss not just running all the lyrics. But here are my favorite lines: "You never have to tell them how the money's spent/You never have to tell them where their freedom went/ Homophobes in the high command/Waiting for The Rapture like it's Disneyland." The song is built on the chorus, which simply and eloquently argues that there's no moral value in all of Mr. Bush's spiritual posturing.
I hope some smug Republicans hear "Man Of God" on their car radio or in a coffee shop. They'll smile, get into it, tap their toes and hum along until they realize it's an assault on their right-wing, righteous self-righteousness and abruptly stop themselves in horror. Adding insult to injury, Gilkyson "brings it on" to Bush with gospel blues to further mock the president's strong suit of religious sincerity. Like a heckler who gets more laughs than the comedian on stage, "Man Of God" is both great and subversive to boot. Gilkyson maximizes the impact of her so-called Cracker Choir singing back-up by not having them show up for over a minute and a half. And when they do, it's goose bumps time. With a posse like this, you don't need the cavalry.
And finally there's the ethereal, hymn-like "Requiem." The singing on this is especially melodic, in no small part because Gilkyson is dueting here with her aforementioned daughter, Delia. The chorus addresses wanting a higher power to comfort the bereaved: "In the dark night of the soul/Bring some comfort to us all/Oh Mother Mary come and carry us in your embrace/That our sorrows may be faced." If all of humanity worshipped at the same place, this would be hard-wired to its Sunday morning playlist. When Gilkyson wrote "Requiem," she had no way of knowing that this achingly beautiful song intended specifically for tsunami survivors abroad would someday have the same resonance for hurricane evacuees at home.
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Tony Peyser writes political
poems every day for
and draws editorial cartoons twice weekly. His new music column,
The Blue State Jukebox, is now a monthly feature for BuzzFlash.
Mr. Peyser (who loves referring to himself in the third person) is