Friday, July 06, 2007


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 6, 2007

Santa Fe not only is home to many worthy pickers and singers hustling gigs at local bars and coffeehouses but also to a much smaller number of musicians with national or international followings who have made their reputations elsewhere and aren’t active participants in the local music scene.

Two of these, Big Al Anderson and Terry Allen, have dandy new albums that ought to make Santa Feans proud to live in the same city and inspire local listeners to pressure both of them to play some gigs here.

Anderson — who has a house in Santa Fe as well as a home in Nashville — is best known for his 22 years as the lead guitarist and sometimes singer for NRBQ. He’s responsible for some of that band’s greatest songs including “Riding in My Car,” “What a Nice Way to Go,” “It Comes to Me Naturally,” “It Was an Accident,” and “Better Word for Love.”

Pawn Shop Guitars by Big Al Anderson & The Balls is something of a departure from Anderson’s previous solo effort, After Hours. That aptly named album was a showcase for his mellower, prettier, jazzier side. The new one, however, is mainly Balls-out (sorry) roadhouse rock.

That’s clear from the first song, “Something in the Water,” which starts out with Anderson singing excitedly over a drumbeat, “She don’t look like her mother, nothin’ like her father/How else can you explain it/Must be something in the water.” Then the rest of the band comes in, churning out a lusty tribute to a “little Dixie chicken” who grew into a “Mississippi queen.”

Big Al “Poor Me,” featuring pedal steel guitar and some crazy slide guitar, shows Anderson’s country side. It’s a joy ride to a honky-tonk. “Drinkin’ on the Weekend” also has country overtones, though it rocks a lot harder.

The title song is a musician’s sweet memory of his early days “bangin’ on chunks of wood.” The refrain is exuberant — “We’re all gonna be stars/Chicks, beers and bars/Pawn shop guitars” — but not as exuberant as Anderson and his band jamming their collective hearts out. You can even hear strains of Hendrix in the song’s fading moments.

There are some quieter tunes too. “Just a Thought,” co-written with Delbert McClinton and Sharon Vaughn, is slow, blue-eyed soul with tremolo guitar and Memphis-style horns. And “Airstream” is a pretty paean to a chrome motor home.

Though most of the material here consists of good-time tunes, there’s one song with seriously dark overtones. “Bigger Wheel” musically sounds like a long-lost John Hiatt song. Starting out as a rather bombastic lost-love tune, “Wheel” turns more sour: “I just ain’t no good at this/I’m tired of being afraid/ Took a lifetime coming to the decision that I’ve made,” Anderson sings. When the narrator talks about “surrendering” to “the bigger wheel,” is he talking about suicide or some kind of spiritual grace?

I’ll leave that to the theologians. All I know is it’s great to hear Big Al rocking.
(This CD is available only at Al's Web site.)

Americana Master Series: Best of the Sugar Hill Years by Terry Allen is set for release Tuesday, July 10. The title is a little misleading. The “Sugar Hill Years” includes almost all of Allen’s recording career, especially since the company has been rereleasing his earlier work and even many of his most obscure music projects. It would have worked just calling it “The Best of Terry Allen” even though it lacks a few cuts I believe should have been included.
If you’re not familiar with this Lubbock Mafia godfather, this CD is a decent way to introduce yourself. (On the other hand, if you are familiar with him, chances are you’re a zealot like me and already own all his CDs, so this one is not necessary.)

Allen is not just a musician; he’s a visual artist as well — a painter, sculptor, and installation artist. His music basically is good old country rock. Since his 1979 album Lubbock (On Everything), he has employed primarily West Texas musicians — most notably steel-guitar great Lloyd Maines — in his Panhandle Mystery Band. He tells hilarious though usually poignant stories about characters mainly from the Southwest.

Probably most of the songs here would be mandatory choices for an Allen best-of. I can’t imagine any such record not starting off with “Amarillo Highway.” (The song’s refrain, “I’m a panhandlin’, man handlin’, post-holin’, high-rollin’, Dust Bowlin’ daddy,” will have to be on Allen’s tombstone.) You couldn’t do this without “Gimme a Ride to Heaven Boy.” (Is it really Jesus or a common carjacker? I’ll leave that to the theologians too.)

And, of course, you couldn’t do it without “New Delhi Freight Train,” which was recorded by the original Little Feat in the 1970s. This is the rocked-out Lubbock (On Everything) original version, not the one recorded with East Indian musicians on Allen’s The Silent Majority.

Great choices that aren’t so obvious to include on this collection are “Peggy Legg,” a twisted song about a one-legged woman on the dance floor (a duet with Jo Carol Pierce), and “The Doll,” an outraged meditation on materialism (“our lord and savior, Jesus Cash”) featuring Middle Eastern instruments.

I would have included songs like “There Oughta Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California” (one of Allen’s finest rockers), “Room to Room” (a duet with Lucinda Williams), and “Ain’t No Top 40 Song” (undistilled rage and violence). But take a listen to this CD, and if you’re hungry for more, seek out those tunes.

Photo notes: The Big Al shot is from his 2006 South by Southwest showcase. Terry Allen is pictured above with Joe Ely at a Santa Fe Brewing Company show last year.

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