Walk Through The Fire Mark Karan
Whether intended to be or not, Mark Karans new solo album Walk Through The Fire sure feels like an audio love letter. Having beaten cancer and returned to his guitar berth with RatDog and the helm of his own band, Jemimah Puddleduck Karan offers up a collection of tunes that reflect his place in life these days and his gratitude over being here to share it with us.
Pick your from-the-heart moment: how about the last couple minutes of Leave A Light On as Karan weaves little flutters of guitar with the voices of the Rowan Brothers and everything cascades down a waterfall of drums? Or the open honesty of the title track (written by Karan just as he was hunkering down for his first round of chemo treatments)? Even the raunchy stuff like the greasy strut of the Deads Easy Wind is just so full of joy that you cant help but be gathered up by it. Many of the titles on Walk Through The Fire will be familiar ones to long-time Karan followers, but do not (I repeat: do not) write it off as a collection of well-worn tunes. Subtle lyric changes (reflecting his matured view of life) and outstanding instrumental moments on even the most familiar songs make this a welcome addition to the extended Dead family catalog.
The talents of Karans Jemimah Puddleduck bandmates (keyboardist JT Thomas, bassist Bob Gross, and the mighty John Molo on drums) are woven throughout the album, both as a complete unit and in various combinations with other players. Its a tribute to Karans talents as bandleader (and producer) that the different lineups on the albums dozen cuts share the same vibe and feel it really is an album not a collection of singles.
In Karans world, his heroes are also his friends: Little Feats Bill Payne, B3 master Mike Finnigan, and jam vet Pete Sears make appearances on keys; Hutch Hutchinson (Bonnie Raitt, Steve Kimock) holds down the bass duties on eight cuts; Klezmer Allstar Glenn Hartman lays down some absolutely funky accordion; Wally Ingram sprinkles percussion throughout; and when Molos not there, Jimmy Sanchez drives the rhythm from behind the drums. And then there are vocal contributions from Bay Area legends Amber Morris and April Grisman; The Persuasions; Chris and Lorin Rowan (featured on the previously-mentioned Leave A Light On); and the Jerry Garcia Bands Jackie LaBranch and Gloria Jones. The line-up may be stunning, but theres not an ego to be heard in the bunch and, again, Karans lovelight shines on all.
Be forewarned: the duet with Delaney Bramlett (who passed away just a few months after the recording was made) on the classic blues Love In Vain is a hair-standing-up-on-the-arm moment. As Karan begins a slow chunk on his acoustic guitar, little harmonics and faint dobro cries in the background let you know that there is another presence standing by to cut loose. And cut loose he does when Bramlett explodes on the first chorus, you cant help but flinch from the raw power of his voice they only made one of those, man. The two combine forces vocally on the last verse before the jam and then Karans guitar matches Bramletts voice and dobro howl for howl a soul-shaking performance under any circumstances.
It goes without saying that Mark Karan has been there and back. Walk Through The Fire proves that he returned smiling, strong, and prepared to play some of the best music of his life.