You Should Be Listening to Steve Jones
Let’s face it: nobody moves here to Maine to get their musical career off the ground.
Hell, it’s hard enough to get performers to even swing up this way for a show during the winter months (that would be from late September through early May). I’m pretty sure there must be a master map used by tour managers and bus drivers that have the area north of Boston labeled “HERE BE DRAGONS.”
Therefore, let it be known that we appreciate all of you who have made the brave trek up here over the years to play us a few tunes and hope that you were able to get back to civilization without having to eat the sled dogs. Thank you.
In the meantime, we have produced some fine pickers and plunkers and tunesmiths of our own in Maine. When I was a kid, it seemed the state’s music scene was dominated by country artists – folks like Gene Hooper, Dick Curless, Jackie King, and (my personal fave) Curley O’Brien, who you can read more about here.
Maine’s been graced with all kinds of talent over the years, however: pickers such as the legendary Lenny Breau; Arlo West – our answer to Stevie Ray Vaughan; and Johnny Hiland, who has a Paul Reed Smith guitar model named after him. We have singer/songwriters like Jason Spooner (whose press clippings compare him to everyone from Dave Matthews to Paul Simon) and Slaid Cleaves (he might live in Austin now, but he was ours in the beginning, dammit), who writes like John Prine on a good day – and never has a bad day.
But for my money, maybe the best all-arounder of them all is Steve Jones.
I first crossed paths with Steve’s music on a Sunday morning in 2004, listening to Charlie Gaylord’s Area Code 207 radio show on WCLZ out of Portland. Charlie spun “Loves To Sing” off of Steve’s just-released It Is What It Is album and my daughter Cassie and I were slapping the dashboard in time with this brand-new tune by the second chorus. A trippy example of what the Byrds would’ve sounded like if they’d recorded in the basement of Keith Richards’ Nellcote hideout, “Loves To Sing” managed the nearly-impossible: it hooked your ear hard and fast with a catchy main riff and gotta-sing-along chorus – and then spiraled off into a wild-assed jam that offered a flute weaving through the snarling, snapping, chiming guitars. By the time it was over, I was scrambling for a scrap of paper and a pencil – I wanted to make sure I got the who and the what behind the song we’d just heard.
The guy’s name was Steve Jones and the rest of It Is What It Is was a crash course in what he does. The see-ya-later of “Time For You” could have been a collaboration between Bob Dylan and Paul Westerberg; “Drunkard’s Life” had a realistic lurch; and “Cowshit Corner” (yes, there really is one, boys and girls) was an acoustic guitar showcase laced with great childhood memories (not to be confused with the pie mentioned in the song that Wanda Russell baked for old Charlie Erskine, which was laced with Ex-Lax).
My feelings about Steve Jones after my first sitdown with that album are the same as what I’d offer up to you sitting here eight years or so later with his latest solo effort, Listening, playing in the background. The man serves the song, making use of the most appropriate genre for the tune’s soul. And it always sounds natural … always sounds like Steve Jones. Too often artists experiment with styles and the sound ends up fitting them like a hurried trip to the costume shop: hanging off their shoulders or too short in the inseam.
Not so with Steve Jones: from Keef crunch to an unplugged drift down the river, the man wears it all very well.
The title track to Listening is a bit of funky, 10,000 Maniac-style acoustic coolness, joined already in progress. (Just you wait ‘til the closing jam – guitars weaving and bobbing against a sweet have-mercy organ.) “Another Angel Song” waltzes comfortably in that same Appalachian/Celtic world that Steve Earle often visits; “Looking For The Next Bad Thing” is loaded with Memphis soul and Croppertone; “One Mistake At A Time” and “Distractions” are chock full of Willie wisdom; and “Just Not Quite What You Get” would have been at home on Sweet Baby James.
Some songs have multiple layers. “Monkey In My Mind” is as goofy as an old Ray Stevens novelty song on the surface, but beneath that is a sinister-looking pool of gasoline and a dangerously-careless hand flicking a Ronson. The back-to-back run of “Sunk” and “When I Sing That Rusty Cage” sounds like a pair of vintage Johnny Cash tunes – the former a fine ol’ chick-a-boom and the latter a rockabilly thumper – but there’s a sweatiness to the delivery of both; a too-many-bennies teeth-grinding tension that gives off a warning as it tells the tales. In the end, “Time To Walk Away” resolves and absolves all, slings a knapsack over its shoulder, picks up its guitar case and heads off down the road.
And when it’s done, you’re going to feel as if you know Steve Jones pretty darn well. And you do. And you don’t.
There’s a back catalog of Steve’s solo albums to dig into, along with work he’s done with folks ranging from The Boneheads and The Coming Grass to Sara Cox and Cindy Bullens. If you’re up here in Maine sometime, check to see if Steve’s playing in the mid-coast area – maybe a solo gig with friends or doing it up with the Holy Mackerels. Or check out the music he’s making with some of the guys from Strangefolk as Dirigo (they released their debut album Jamericana in 2011).
But start with Listening and work backwards from there.
And just in case you forgot the point of all this – yeah: Steve Jones is from Maine … and I’d put him up against the best any other state’s got to offer.
Visit the world of Brian Robbins at Brian-robbins.com/