The Spirit of Woody, Steinbeck and John Huston That Rekindles the American Folk Flame.
I can remember the afternoon when I first saw Otis Gibbs the Jumping Hot Club at SummerTyne as if it was yesterday. Since then I have accumulated all 7 of his previous albums and must have seen him perform 10 or more times and he never fails to make my soul stir and enrich my brain. Plus, his Thanks For Giving a Damn podcast has taught me more about Americana history, music and its exponents than any magazine or website has even come close over the last few years.
Yep, I’m a bit of a fan.
Recorded in lieu of a party in his living room on the day of hos 50th Birthday, the album opens with Ed’s Blues (Survival) a beautifully sad song featuring some incredibly maudlin fiddle and a story about a friends death that has a great similarity to Gram Parson’s final days.
Otis has always been able to extract a song from the everyday things he encounters as he travels around the highways and by-ways of rural America and at last he has managed to put all of those freaks, geeks and oddities into one three minute opus. Great American Roadside truly en-captures the ‘Spirit of Americana’ in a way I don’t think I’ve heard before, and it conjures up pictures that are best viewed in mono or sepia…..definitely not Technicolour.
On his last album, Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth, Otis looked back fondly on his upbringing, specifically his relationship with his father and that theme recurs here with the raw and emotional Empire Hole, about the Limestone Quarry that his Dad worked in. I love the way Otis contrasts the beautiful New York Skyline with the hole in the ground in rural Indiana that supplied the stone for the city’s most famous landmark.
Sticking with the ‘looking back’ theme, two songs really intrigue me….Kathleen about a ‘first love’ in 1993 who has taken a wrong turn, but still features in the narrators life, albeit the shadows. It’s lyrically excellent and truly heartbreaking with Gibb’s voice sounding warm, leathery and on the verge of cracking.
The other is the Appalachian/Irish flavoured Lucy Parsons. The type of song more normally associated with the likes of Tom Russell; but a delightful move forward for Wanamaker’s favourite son.
While One Day Our Whispers is my favourite Otis Gibbs album (and a Top 10 of all time) it’s entirely possible that the more I listen to my favourite two songs included here that this album could overtake it very soon.
Those two songs epitomise everything I love about American Singer-songwriters and especially this one.
Gibbs gives us two history lessons with Bison and Sputnik Monroe. Bison is a heartfelt tale of the ‘white men’ destroying the great Bison herds and therefore destroying the great Cherokee nation. The song’s construction and delivery will grab you by the heart strings and feel like a kick to the stomach…..but leaving you staggered at Gibbs’ story-telling ability.
The opening lines to Sputnik Monroe should instantly grab your attention – “Listen to me people/Let me speak to your Soul/There’s more to Memphis than Rock & Roll.” The song about a long forgotten white boxer, who instigated the first integrated sporting event in the South, is a ‘typical’ Otis Gibbs story. One where he finds a tiny gold nugget that needs to be brought to our attention and does it in a very articulate and never less than interesting manner.
If this song doesn’t win ‘Song of the Year’ Awards at the end of 2017 there’s no justice in this world.
No longer the ‘Angry Man of Folk’ that I first fell in love with many years ago; Otis Gibbs now sounds more rounded; mature even (?) and his story-telling on this and the previous album will surely bring him to the attention of a much wider audience that will give him the recognition and rewards his talent deserves.
Released 13th January 2017