Other Animals Don’t Sing The Blues: On The Road With J.B. Beverley & The Wayward Drifters
Horizons Are Meant To Be Crossed
This story is true. It is as true and hard as the sky that greets you when you drop off of I-80 onto I-57 and then into the deep and gracious skies of central Illinois. Skies that run into a clean and sharp green horizon made from the uniform growth of cornfields. Skies that shelter every conceivable dream and nightmare of man, every conceivable yearning of the flesh and the senses, every possible combination of living and dying. All the gasps for air, all the nights that descend like hawks upon the soul, all the days that unfold themselves amongst the metallic scratch of diesel brakes with short loads in the recession. All the days and nights of the heartland like so many others and like none but themselves. Days and nights that I had set out into the center of to watch three men lose themselves on the stage night after night in the desperate and successful attempt at making magic, at finding that special voodoo of the soul that makes us each unique. A voodoo that screams across the void to be heard and that when heard gives us all a little piece of ourselves back.
Gibson City, Illinois was the second load-in in as many days and I knew that Johnny Lawless’ arm was nearly shot, his rotator cuff torn. J.B. Beverley’s throat was sore, perhaps infected, and his picking hand had seized up on him as we got to the hotel the night before. Dan Mazer was fine physically, but they, J.B. Beverley & The Wayward Drifters, had been on the road a long time and when you break through that many horizons in a year if your body doesn’t begin to fail you, something in your soul breaks just a little.
The late afternoon sun in Gibson City came at us clear and sharp and warm as J.B. pulled his guitar cases out of the back of the van. I had a moment of guilt, thinking that I should help them unload, but I was busy shooting photographs, trying to capture that half-lonesome and hollow echo that spreads itself outward from the empty concert hall towards the performers as it waits to be filled. The night before in Cleveland, J.B. Beverley & The Wayward Drifters had played on a small stage beneath posters of old bands, old singers, dead singers, history drifting toward itself in a yellow mist, that fine yellow mist of old newspapers and the streets. They had run the sound down to a special point then and had left me sitting at the bar taking notes and photographs, thinking that what they were doing was less of a paying homage to those old giants than an outright stealing of the torch and brandishing it as their own. But here, after the clear and special Midwestern light had died off and night had taken its place, would they be able to find that spot again; that “magic spot,” as J.B. Beverley likes to call it? I knew that they had the ability to, that they could, but would they? Would they shake off the pain, the frustration and the miles and find it? Would they risk it all one more time for the crowd?
J.B. Beverley & The Wayward Drifters had been together as a unit for ten years, this incarnation of it six. Dan Mazer, the banjo, mandolin and dobro player had been with J.B. for eight years, Johnny Lawless joining the two of them six years ago. And from what J.B. had told me backstage in Cleveland, barring “them leaving me flat on my ass, this is the group that is going to stay.”
“That’s right,” Dan had said. “If you see nothing else in these next few days I hope that you see that we have a deep and common respect for each other.”
“These are guys I’d lie to a judge for,” J.B. said. “These are guys that have been through the best of times with me to busking on street corners.”
“But look,” Johnny Lawless interrupted, “if you are going to do something, you go at it. Go at it.”
Go at it. Johnny Lawless had joined the band after running into J.B. one night at a Joe Buck concert in Baltimore. He knew that J.B. needed someone to play doghouse bass. He didn’t give J.B. another option.
“I told him that I was his new bass player and that I had a van,” he told me. Later that first night, somewhere near the dawn, he had turned to J.B. and said, “We’re going on the road and the angels are coming too.”
Dan had met J.B. at a songwriter’s showcase in Virginia and heard something in his songs that had kept him as the lead player for all this time now.
I had come to see how they made it work. To see how Johnny, a former Marine sniper and Baltimore police officer, J.B., an old train riding hobo and GG Allin’s replacement in the Murder Junkies, combined with Dan, a music theory major at George Washington University with nearly forty years experience on the banjo, to make a single sound, that special and self-reliant Wayward Drifters sound, night after night after night on the road. The road, which may very well have been the mother of that sound as well as its threat, its inspiration and its calling.
Their latest album, Watch America Roll By, had been in constant rotation with me after I returned back to the United States following a year in the Middle East, a year that saw me log nearly 75,000 miles of my own in the air. Their first album, Dark Bar and a Jukebox, had gotten me through some hard times; losing a girl and a job on the same day with nothing in sight. And it had gotten me through some wild and free nights where age means nothing and time is but a memory. For me, the difference between the two albums seemed to have been the road. Watch America Roll By is filled with the sounds and themes of the road, though none less poetic and sharp as their first album is. In a market inundated with songs written in corporate boardrooms by staff songwriters their albums ring out as a clear call to anyone left chasing the muse, anyone left with the guts to dream.