Jon Shain and his Trio will be performing this evening (Saturday, July 17) at The Soul Cafe in Durham, NC, together with Washington, DC’s The Grandsons and Pat Wictor. The Soul Cafe is an alcohol-free venue near Durham’s Brightleaf Square. Sadly, I’m out of town and can’t attend – but you should. Click here for more information on tonight’s show from Jon’s Facebook page.
Times Right Now is the 6th album by Piedmont Blues guitarist Jon Shain since he went solo in 1998 after a decade with his folk-rock group, Flyin’ Mice, and their spinoff, WAKE.
Shain’s album covers as much diverse ground as you might expect from a Jewish boy from a Massachusetts milltown who came to Duke to major in American history and seek the mentorship of legends in the Piedmont blues style (biography here). There’s something for everyone on this album regardless of one’s musical preferences.
Perhaps the greatest departure for Jon is the partnership with The Grandsons from DC who add a layer of vintage horns not normally seen on previous albums. Hailing largely from DC, The Grandson bring a self-described “pawn shop of instruments” to the effort. Together with members of his time-tested trio, FJ Ventre on bass, Bill Newton on harmonica, and John Currie on dobro, Times Right Now is a work of finesse and strong songwriting and musicianship while also serving up a few earbugs for even the casual listener.
Self produced with Scottsburg Jonze and Jackson Hall, it’s the fresh mixing of Chris Stamey that comes to the forefront from the first note. Stamey, a long ago member of the dBs and outstanding guitarist in his own right most recently partnering with his old mate, Peter Holsapple, has made a consistent name for himself with his recording and production skills. Stamey brings the clarity and authenticity of each instrument to the overall mix and Holsapple even shows up for a guest appearance. After listening to Auto-Tune-worked songs and sampling loops out the wazoo elsewhere, it’s truly refreshing to hear exquisite playing that doesn’t skimp on melody and hooks.
Shain opens “James Alley Blues” with the album’s title line, “times right now ain’t nothing like they used to be,” letting us know from the start that this is a different album. His acoustic guitar lines are clean and the groove set down by Newton and Ventre is infectious. Followed by “Mr. Snakeoil!,” a tune inspired by the Bush administration, the album opens strongly with blues riffs before Jon breaks it down to show his diverse skill.
“Spinning Compass” is the first of a few dreamier numbers that demonstrate Shain’s penchant for supreme fingerpicking and sense of melody. A few of the breaks are reminiscent of Suzanne Vega’s debut album “down in your hometown.” The Grandsons are then front and center on “Something New,” launching with tenor sax and Bill Newton’s playful harmonica in the style of Stevie Wonder.
It took me several listens to the concertina waltz, “Clementine,” before I could identify what grabbed about this one. I could hear this being one of Springsteen’s sweeping waltzes featured on 1980’s, The River, except that Jon’s singing is more authentic and less affected than The Boss was on that album (and that coming from a Jersey boy).
“Driving them Crazy” again pulls out the fingerpicking chops and hits a home run with “Careless Love,” a top pick from a musician’s standpoint with pre-World War slide picking and lonesome vocal harmonies.
The most broadly accessible song on the album is the New Orleans-flavored, “Oooncha Ooncha Music.” This song has become a ritual for the PharmKid every morning this summer where we can play it three times in the car before I drop her off at camp. That’s a far greater endorsement than my writing can provide. I’m happy to support her fixation on the song because she sings along with words that tell the music history: “Louie Armstrong and Jellyroll, they paved the way for rock ‘n’ roll.” If you don’t move some part of your body while listening to this song, you need a defibrillator.
“Midnight Snack” then features FJ Ventre on vocals. I learned from seeing the trio a few weeks ago that Jon writes a song on each album for FJ and they’ve been trying to get this song adopted by Lynne Rosetto Casper for her NPR foodie show, The Splendid Table.
“Louise, Louise” is one of the grittier numbers in the true blues style: “When Louise gets down to business, she’s like a locomotive train.”
“Song for Dara” kicks off back-to-back family time building on Jon’s tunes Song for Maria and Song for JoJo on his previous album, Army Jacket Winter. For his sister, Dara, Jon devotes a catchy instrumental with an overdubbed counter melody – a tasty little piece. But to reprise his devotion to his daughter JoJo, Shain channels Matthew Sweet’s Divine Inspiration in “Little Flower”. Johanna (her given name) is a contemporary of the PharmKid, a rising 3rd grader. The song will resonate with the daddy faction, reminding of short time we have with these little angels before they launch off: “Just a little while longer, she’ll blow away from me soon.”
Jon closes the album with a primarily acoustic number called “Yadkin River Blues,” a song that was my instant favorite when I saw the Shain with FJ and Bill Newton the night I purchased the disc. The Yadkin River Valley is a sleepy region of North Carolina one encounters while driving west up to the Appalachians that’s now making its name as a major wine grape growing region, the first American Vitacultural Area appellation so designated in the state. Perhaps reflecting North Carolina’s prominence in science, technology, and education, but down-home Southern culture, Shain grabs me with the lines, “I’m just waiting for two checks in my mail…one’s from the academy and the other’s from a jail.”
While Jon has another three or four decades of doing this, I found that this album was a major step forward that the previous albums had been leading to. I didn’t speak much about Jon’s singing but it’s really strong and pure with an ease that had’t quite come through fully on previous albums; I feel that he’s really hit another milestone in his own musical journey. I tried to identify a weakness in the album but the only one I can find was that it ended after the last song. Certainly, some songs will appeal more to some than others but Jon is to be congratulated for putting together such a strong team whose seasoned core and new friends, The Grandson, treat his songs with the craftsmanship they deserve.
Shain’s own press release describing the background and inspirations for this album can be found in this PDF.
And he’ll teach you how to do this, too
I should also mention that Jon is an equally talented instructor of electric and acoustic guitar and bass in many styles as well as songwriting technique. His long-running advertisement in the Triangle’s Independent Weekly cites his expertise with helping adult players getting unstuck from their plateaus. It was that line that drew me to seek Jon out for lessons for the first time in my 30 years of being stuck at my own plateau. As an instructor, Jon’s approach is to help you be whatever you want – a parlor hack, an open mike night player, a solid traditionalist, or a balls-out rocker.
His teaching sessions don’t just cover music theory and fingerpicking exercises. Jon’s given me tutoring on songwriting, how to talk to an audience (don’t tell a long story about the story you’re about to sing them), and the basic nuts and bolts of the music business.
Jon’s also built a really nice community among his protégés by hosting an open mike house concert for his students every few months to give everyone a chance to perform in a supportive environment no matter where they are in their music development. It’s not often that you’ll find such a magnanimous spirit in the music industry – Shain is a community treasure.
You can download Shain’s Times Right Now and hear previews at cdbaby.
And for those readers in New York and New England, Jon will be touring up with y’all during August. Check his tour calendar to learn we you can see him live.
Disclosure: The copy of Times Right Now reviewed herein was purchased by the blogger at a Jon Shain Trio concert but I did get a deal by buying three for $30 and had them autographed by Shain, FJ Ventre, and Bill Newton. No free materials or other services were provided by the artist in exchange for this review or endorsement of his instructional activities. This is pure love and admiration, my friends.