Music Under the Radar

Twenty years ago when I had something approximating a real job writing about music and helping to put a weekly newspaper together, one day a CD appear called Lost Souls by a band called the Raindogs.  On the surface they appeared to be just another rock band, except the group included a fairly well known and quite excellent Celtic fiddle player named Johnny Cunningham.  The songs written by lead sing and guitarist Mark Cutler crossed the spectrum of roots rock music which was soon to be labeled Americana, but riding underneath was a bit of garage rock, combined with soul and at times reminiscent of the early Stones with a touch of the Standells.  One of the songs on Lost Souls, “Phantom Flame,” was a song I found impossible to play just once.  It was arranged so carefully, with a soulful opening acoustic guitar lick, and building to an irresistible chorus, I ended up playing it numerable times.   The Raindogs survived the music business long enough to tour with such people as Warren Zevon, Bob Dylan and the Waterboys, but vanished after their second album didn’t receive the all important publicity required to survive.  Cunningham passed away in 2003, but Mark Cutler continues to perform and record on a local level.

Earlier this year Cutler released Red, which finds him still pursuing pretty much the same sounds he did with the Raindogs.  Alternating tough rockers with ballads, and songs that are personal, yet have a contemporary edge, Cutler’s sense of how to use instruments in surprising ways is impeccable.  Mandolins and even a cello appear when you’re not expecting them, but always complement the song with just the right flavor.   At the same time his singing – there’s always an undercurrent of menace in his voice – and his excellent guitar work keep things from ever becoming too tender.  Cutler knows how to build a song around a guitar riff, and his riffs have a habit of sounding familiar enough to draw you in, but always have an original element added, and he uses this to consistently to his advantage.

Lyrically Cutler has gift for taking a simple phrase, and by the way he uses it, and also by the way he sings it imbues it with a greater urgency than it may have on its own.  On “I Hear Your Car,” the key line, “I hear your car driving down my road,” is sung in such a way that the anticipation, both good and bad is hit home in a dramatic fashion.  “We Shall Always Remain Friends,” and “Just A Paycheck Away” work with similar results, with the latter song capturing perfectly the despair of the last couple of years of American existence.

What makes Red stand out ultimately is there’s a sense of foreboding and darkness lurking behind the songs.  Nothing is simple, and the people in the songs may end up doing bad when they’re trying to do good, searching for light, but lost in a fog.  While all the songs capture this to an extent, nothing exemplifies it better than the albums hardest rocker, “Doc Pomus Ghost.”  With lyrics reminiscent in feel of Highway 61 Revisited, over a searing slide guitar, Cutler sings:

Try to use my imagination, but it ain’t no good
There’s a lot of frustration in my neighborhood
My eyes stay open in the witching hour
There’s a search light search, there’s a guard in the tower

Red can be purchased here.

Jeff Newsom is a harmonica player and singer, currently residing in the Teton Mountains in Idaho,  who’s worked with Otis Rush, and the Holmes Brothers among others.  The Henhouse Tapes by Jeff Newsom and friends is a collection of studio tracks, with a couple of live tracks thrown in for good measure, that covers a wide spectrum of blues, with a bit of ragtime and what was in the ’60s good time music as well as a cover of a Band classic.

To say that Jeff Newsom is the best harp player you’ve never heard is not an exaggeration.  It is obvious he’s listened to all the great Chicago blues harp players, and the non Chicago ones as well.  Every solo Newsom takes is not only charged with energy, but invention as well.  Playing what’s right for each song, with a variety of sounds and tones, he consistently surprises and amazes.

That sense of surprise extends to the musicians accompanying Newsom, including mandolinist Ben Winship, guitarist Mike Dowling and banjo player Tony Furtado, and the arrangements as well.  Okay, now some reading this may say, hold on a minute, mandolin and banjo on a blues album?  Well, Sleepy John Estes had mandolin on most of his songs.  But that’s the great thing about The Henhouse Tapes, it crosses, blends a merges a bunch of musical territories.

The instrumental, “Mama Jean,” starts out with a funk bass, followed by blues harp solo, followed by  a banjo solo, into swing chorus and back again.

On Robbie Robertson’s “The Weight,” Newsom channels Garth Hudson accordion into his harp playing, with all the Hudson technical intricacies.  This is no sing along cover either.  It is sung and played with the same soulful attitude as the original studio version by The Band.

Newsom’s singing has a toughness reminiscent of Paul Butterfield.  He does what needs to be done and never resorts to excessive vocal mannerisms.  When he sings about fishing on two songs, the delightful “Fishing In The Dark” and “Going Fishing,” the nigh winds blowing on “Move On Away From Here,” or standing by the highway at 10:30 at night, on “Rule The Road,” you know he’s experienced what he’s singing about.

The Henhouse Tapes as is, is probably not the finished album Jeff Newsom intended to make, though it stands as one.  Early this year, Jeff Newsom was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).  This album was quickly culled together by friends for a benefit concert/party in his community.  He can no longer play the spectacular harp solos heard on this album, sing or fingerpick the guitar as he does on a cool over of Robert Johnson’s “Red Hot.”  He can no longer earn a living as carpenter.  And like many musicians, he does not have health insurance, and even if he did they’re unlike to cover the many things he needs associated with this illness to survive.

Anyone who appreciates American music, the ways styles and genres can be intertwined, and most of simply terrific playing and musicianship will more than enjoy The Henhouse Tapes.

The Henhouse Tapes can be purchased here and all proceeds go to Jeff Newsom.

PETER STONE BROWN is a musician, songwriter, and writer. He can be reached at: psb51@verizon.net

Peter Stone Brown is a freelance writer and singer-songwriter.  

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