20th Century Theater
April 10, 2018
Mr. Smalls Theatre
April 12, 2018
Harro East Ballroom
April 13, 2018
April 15, 2018
South Burlington, VT
Port City Music Hall
April 16, 2018
Gateway City Arts
April 19, 2018
The Bowery Ballroom
April 20, 2018
New York, NY
You could mistake JD McPherson for a revivalist, given how few other contemporary artists are likely to assert, as he boldly does, that Keep a Knockin by Little Richard is the best record ever made. Its so insanely visceral, you feel like its going to explode your speakers. If Im listening to that in the car, I find myself having to brake suddenly. I can listen to that and it makes me feel like Im 20 feet tall. And the feeling of joy I get from that record is always going to be the real push behind trying to make music.
But in a very real sense, McPherson is much more a pioneer than roots resuscitator. Hes knocking at the door of something that arguably hasnt yet been accomplisheda spirited, almost spiritual hybrid that brings the forgotten lessons from the earliest days of rock & roll into a future that has room for the modernities of studio technique and 21st century singer/songwriter idiosyncrasies that Richard Penniman would not recognize. Let the Good Times Roll, his second album, is a stranger, and more personal affair than its Fats Domino-redolent title might at first suggest, but the name isnt exactly ironic, either. If you, too, brake for pleasure, youll screech to a halt at the enrapturing sound of these Good Times.
His first album, 2012s Signs & Signifiers, was hailed as an utterly irresistible, slicked-back triumph by Mojo and a rockin, bluesy, forward-thinking gold mine that subtly breaks the conventions of most vintage rock projects by All Music Guide. The Washington Post wrote that, he and his bandmates are great musicians taking ownership of a sound, not just mimicking one. That same review remarked upon how, the album sounds as if the band is in the same room with the listener. But for the follow-up, McPherson wanted to maintain that raw power while also capturing the more mysterious side of the records he loves. To that slightly spookier end, he enlisted as a collaborator Mark Neill, known for his work as a producer and engineer with versed-in-the-past acts going back to the Paladins in the 1980s, but, most recently, for recording The Black Keys and Dan Auerbacha friend of McPhersons who co-wrote the new albums Bridge Builder.
Talking up one of the freshly minted tunes, Bridge Builder, McPherson describes it as being the psychedelic Coasters. That no such thing really existed prior to this album doesnt deter him. This is something I actually talked about with Mark at the beginning of the record: I want to make a 50s psychedelic record!
Neill was up to meeting that seemingly oxymoronic challenge. Its still a rock & roll record, but the borders are expanding a little bit, McPherson explains. With some of the writing that came out this time, it became apparent the songs werent going to lend themselves well to our usual process. So as we sought out a producer, we took aim for a slightly widerI guess hi-fi is the wordsound, and got more experimental. Mark Neill certainly has all the tools in his hardware shop with which to produce any range of sounds from vintage Capitol Records stuff on up togosh, we listened to so much David Bowie making this record. Wed play Primal Screams Screamadelica to listen to how they suddenly started making dance records, and then Mark would play us Marilyn McCoo singing Marry Me, Bill over and over again, I guess trying to re-wire our brains.
Amid this flurry of possible influences, a few production approaches stuck. I find that the records that I like to listen to over and over again are the ones that have those strange engineering choices, or weird sounds. I was very attracted to the idea of using plate reverb. So whereas the first record was really informed by New Orleans rhythm and blues, where everything was very dry and up-front, I really was listening more this time to a ton of Link Wray, and the Allen Toussaint-produced Irma Thomas stuff, and all the early 60s rock & roll that is saturated in plate reverb.
McPherson certainly doesnt begrudge the attention that Signs & Signifiers unexpectedly brought him. If it hadnt been for the North Side Gal video, this probably never would have caught on, he says, recalling the fame he found on YouTube even before Rounder picked up his indie release. Thats how we found our label and found our management. I was still teaching school, and here I am with got this video thats like a million hits. Im like, what? I had no plans to quit my job. Luckily, I lost it. A middle school art departments loss was Rounders and the rock worlds gain.
Itd been a while in coming. I started getting obsessed with this stuff when I was in high school, McPherson says. There wasnt much to do where I grew up in rural southeast Oklahoma, where I lived on a 160-acre cattle ranch. When he discovered early rock & roll and R&B, it was like finding a treasure no one else knew about. Nobody around me had any interest whatsoever in Little Richard except for me and my friend. Once we started listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, and to Screamin Jay Hawkins, which was the best thing you could ever find, everything started to change. Ive got a videotape of us playing at a pool hall in the early 90s in Talihina, Oklahoma, and its cowboys and criminals and people that are cooking meth up in the hills standing around playing pool, and here we are with our greaser uniforms on, playing Buddy Hollys Rockin Around with Ollie Vee followed by Clampdown by the Clash, and all these people are really confused. Those were happy times.
The covers and the grease got dropped along the way to adulthood, of course, even though he knows what he does now is likely to wind up with some inaccurate revival tags. Theres never going to be a point where Im not going to hear the word rockabilly, he says with a laugh and a sigh, even though its not anthropologically correct, because its separate from rhythm & blues and rock & roll. Not being able to be perceived as how you sort of define what youre doing is frustrating, but you just have to understand that not everybody is a nerd about this stuff. What it comes down to is that you cant expect for people to listen if youre not doing something personal. I mean, you cant just do covers of Johnny Burnette Trio songs, because that idea has already been expressed, and it was actually moved past pretty quickly.
Rock & roll music changed really quickly when it started becoming ubiquitous youth music and the Presidents sister started doing the Twist. Yet theres something intrinsically valuable about a lot of those ideas that havent fully been explored yet. And you take everything you love about it and write personal music and hope it translates into its own thing. I always hear Man, bringing this stuff back is really important, but I have goal to bring rock & roll back in some reactionary way to battle something else. I want it to just kind of nudge it into its own little place alongside whats happening now.
Since the debut album came out, McPherson has played for a lot of those aforementioned genre nerds who pick up on every single influence. But he and his band have also opened for acts ranging from Bob Seger (getting a standing ovation at an arena in Detroit, the headliners hometown) to the Dave Matthews Band to Nick Lowe to Eric Church (who sought him out to write some songs together). For a Halloween night 2014 show at the Forum in L.A., super-fan Josh Homme, one of McPhersons biggest supporters, handpicked him to open for Queens of the Stone Age. These may not all seem like natural pairings, but the music is primal and melodic enough that, after a few minutes, it never fails to make sense even to audiences with the least of expectations and musical educations.
Man, people may not even know it, but they all like that stuff, McPherson declares. Ive seen it happen over and over again. Youre in a record store where theyre playing some weird underground amorphous electronic record that has no configurable beat per minute, and then they put on a Sam Cooke record, and everybody is just like Ohhh like a weight lifted. All kinds of music are interesting, but man, theres something about the 1/4/5, 12-bar blues form thats just hard-wired into American brains. And I shouldnt say just American brains, because this stuff is still really huge in Europe, too. Everybody likes rock & roll. They just either wont admit it or dont know it yet, he laughs, unshakable in his faith that the whole world is or will be on a roll.
As a visual artist, Broken Arrow, Okla., native JD McPherson is well versed in the process of working within clearly defined formal parameters, and he employs a similarly rigorous discipline with his music. On Signs & Signifiers (Rounder, April 17), McPherson’s seductively kickass debut album, produced by JD’s musical partner, Jimmy Sutton, this renaissance man/hepcat seamlessly meshes the old and the new, the primal and the sophisticated, on a work that will satisfy traditional American rock ’n’ roll and R&B purists while also exhibiting McPherson’s rarefied gift for mixing and matching disparate stylistic shapes and textures.
“There are little subcultures within the roots scene, where people are really into rockabilly, traditional hillbilly stuff or old-timey music,” JD points out, “but there aren’t a whole lot of folks making hard-core rhythm & blues hearkening back to Specialty, Vee-Jay or labels like that. That’s what Jimmy and I really like, and our only intention going in was just to make a solid rhythm & blues/rock ’n’ roll record. But I didn’t want to make a time-machine record, so we tried to make something relevant but with all the things we love about rock ’n’ roll and rhythm & blues and mesh it all together. We both have eclectic tastes; Jimmy likes the Clash as much as he likes Little Richard, and I like the Pixies, T.Rex, hip-hop and all kinds of stuff. So we came up with a couple of weird songs and put them on the record, hoping that it wouldn’t scare off any of our ultra-selective fanbase.”
JD needn’t have worried. It’s highly unlikely that even the most discerning listeners would guess that the arrangement on his cover of Tiny Kennedy’s R&B chestnut “Country Boy” incorporates not only the tambourine beat of Ruth Brown’s 1955 Atlantic single “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” but also Raekwon and RZA’s “abstract, out-of-tune piano loops” on Wu-Tang Clan’s innovative ’93 LP Enter the Wu-Tang; or that the mesmerizing churner “Signs & Signifiers” is powered by an unchanging tremolo guitar figure modeled on Johnny Marr’s part on the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now.” Then there’s “Firebug,” which JD “wanted to sound as if Stiff Little Fingers had recorded at Del-Fi Records.” And while it may not have been specifically what McPherson and Sutton were going for, the haunting dreamscape “A Gentle Awakening” seems to chart a course from “Heartbreak Hotel” through Terence Trent D’Arby to Amy Winehouse.
Never has an album of so-called “retro” music been laced with such a rich payload of postmodern nuance. But that was precisely the intent of what JD describes, only half-facetiously, as “an art project disguised as an R&B record.”
“It’s weird,” says Sutton, “when you grow up being a fan of ‘older’ music and all of a sudden you’re making a record, you’re thinking, are we just recreating something—a museum piece—or are we actually bringing it forward? It’s interesting, because if you make something today and it moves you today, in that sense it’s contemporary. I like that juxtaposition of classic and fresh, something old yet new that can actually take you somewhere now.”