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Published: 2010/09/07
by Brian Robbins

Jerry Lee Lewis
Mean Old Man

Verve Forecast

Say what you want: ol’ Jerry Lee Lewis (who turns 75 this year) has never tried to be anything but himself since he cut his first demo back in 1954. As much a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer as he’s been a country music stalwart, Lewis has earned his keep, influencing the music world with everything from his wild-ass piano playing and gospel-influenced fires-of-Hell vocals to his piano-bench-busting keyboard-pounding showmanship. (There are punk rockers in this world who owe something to Jerry Lee Lewis, whether they know it or not.)

And the music hasn’t stopped yet: Jerry Lee’s new Mean Old Man finds him full of spark and having a good time – with a hefty charge of friends invited along for the ride. Lewis does his own stunt work on Mean Old Man with plenty of brace-off-and-let-‘er-fly vocals and run-the-length-of-the-keyboard piano flurries. Holding down the fort on drums (and co-producing) is Jim Keltner, who shares a good part of the album’s pulse with veteran bassist Rick Rosas. (Hutch Hutchinson guests on bass for a couple songs, while a drummer named Starr – Ringo, that is – doubles up with Keltner on a rip through “Roll Over Beethoven”.) Also on deck throughout Mean Old Man is longtime (like, 40-plus years longtime) Jerry Lee guitar man Kenny Lovelace while Greg Leisz contributes beautiful pedal steel work.

In most cases, the album’s guests mesh comfortably with their host – and sound tickled to be part of the project. (The only exception is Kid Rock, who didn’t get the memo about whose album this is. Rock’s obviously thrilled to be there, but on “Rockin’ My Life Away”, he comes off like an over-exuberant participant in a high school talent show. Chill out, man. Be cool … be cool. This is The Killer’s deal.)

There are highlights galore: “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” features Lewis trading off verses with Mavis Staples while Leisz weaves his pedal work with Nils Lofgren on lap steel and Robbie Robertson on electric guitar. Soul master Solomon Burke shines his light on “Railroad To Heaven”, a tune Lewis introduces as one he’s been doing since he was a kid in church “with all my kin people lookin’ right down my throat. It was good then and it’s good now.” And it is.

Willie Nelson (who’s rolled the odometer around a few times himself) lays into “Whiskey River” with Jerry Lee, letting rip with some fine lead work in the process. Speaking of guitarists, James Burton and Eric Clapton tear it up rockabilly-style on “You Can Have Her” – proving that when ol’ EC is inspired, he can still make the sparks fly.

The Mean Old Man sessions had to be honky-tonk heaven for the Rolling Stones. Since coming out as closet country freaks back in the 60s, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have written their share of twangers over the years – and Jerry Lee digs into two of them here. The Stones’ classic “Dead Flowers” provides Jagger with a chance to drawl out some harmonies behind Lewis, while Keef lays some Keef-style guitar and vocals tastefully all over “Sweet Virginia”. (But whose idea was it to change the chorus to “Got to scrape that shine right off your shoes,” eh?) Not to be left out of the festivities, fellow Stone Ronnie Wood contributes some nasty guitar picking to the title cut.

Sure, the guest talent that’s spread throughout Mean Old Man makes for plenty of fun moments, but the foundation of the album is still Jerry Lee Lewis himself – and it sounds like he’s having the most fun of all. Trying to be the wildman of yesteryear would be a mistake – and Lewis doesn’t even attempt it. He sounds like what he is: an original who doesn’t need to prove anything – but isn’t going to do it half-assed, either. The soulfulness is as real as the growls – 75-year-old growls or not. And as mentioned earlier, Lewis still works the keys hard with no shortcuts – the piano work on Mean Old Man is all his and still impressive.

At a time of life when many would be kicked back and coasting, Jerry Lee Lewis has managed to crank out an album that crackles with energy and will make you grin like a fool.

“If I look like a mean old man, that’s what I am,” Jerry Lee sings on the title cut. Maybe so, but this album still sounds like a damn good time.

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