JOE HENRY—The Gospel According To Water (Earmusic)

The Gospel According To WaterJoe Henry’s The Gospel According To Water is an acoustic, melodic, and eclectic warm root that wraps its deep soul around very vital American folk music.

Let’s face it: Ray Davies summarized modern existence when he wrote in ‘Lola’, “It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world”. And let’s also say that the world has become even more “mixed up, muddled up, and shook up” since he wrote those words a long time ago.

But this album is a wise and quiet eye, a warm eye smack dab in the middle of any hurricane. It’s a record that plants a stake and sings a pretty good truth that simply glances at all the simple stuff of life and magnifies its importance.

Vincent Van Gogh did the same thing.

Ditto for Bruce Springsteen.

This is stripped down Joe Henry. He’s made countless albums with a voice crying from the poetic wilderness, and occasionally, has strayed from a simple folk ethos. Ornette Coleman, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, and Van Dyke Parks have graced his records. But this one is just Joe (and a few friends adding piano and guitar with son Levon Henry on slowly-danced sax and clarinet) still crying, this time, from an acoustic forest.

The opening tune, ‘Famine Walk,’ is strummed sincerity. Joe sings, “I looked deep within my blood” with a weary Dustbowl voice, while the melody can inflate what Gordon Lightfoot once called, “a few good secondhand dreams”.

The title tune sings like really decent scripture. There’s a beautiful line that touches testament truth, and talks of a place “where the faithful bring their baskets down and set their children free”. Perhaps, that’s beyond modern GPS navigation.

It’s just a thought, but Joe Henry’s music has always been decent scripture. He elevates the common into metaphorical significance. In his song ‘Odetta’ (from the album Reverie) he once posed the question, “Whose chickens are those in my yard?” I still wonder about that. His lyrics conjure a post-Minotaur labyrinth, a quiet place to wander endlessly, and find, to quote The Band’s song ‘Whispering Pines’, that “the lost are found”.

Ahh – the songs cut a continuous furrow into the dark American soil. ‘Mule’ carves a melody out of tough Midwest sod. It’s a song that balances the space between ethereal dreams and the crashed reality of “trampled beauty” and “silence deep as sound”. ‘Orson Welles’ is slow with a deliberate sax. It’s patient with deliberate sax. Again, it deals with the struggle of duality, as Joe sings, “You provide the terms of my surrender and I’ll provide the war. There are more acoustic revelations. ‘Green Of The Afternoon’ is plucked and urgent, with a nod to Paul McCarthy’s ‘Blackbird’. And ‘In Time For Tomorrow’ has sublime backing voices that sing, “all the stars that fall as one”, and evokes the warmth of a campfire under a dark night sky.

Now, as stated, The Gospel According To Water, with its sparse instrumentation, is quite different from previous albums. All the songs reflect into each other and produce a continuous meditation, that from time to time, pauses to take another breath, and then dives back, as Joe said, “deep within my blood”.

‘The Fact Of Love’ is that breath of soulful and tough folk music.

Yes, in a very American way, this music touches the desolate beauty of (the great) Richard Thompson. ‘Book Of Common Prayer’ echoes the depth and pathos of ‘Poor Ditching Boy’. That’s high praise. The same is true for ‘Bloom,’ which also mirrors the melodic quality of a nice Dylan tune. This is archetypal stuff that people once drew on cave walls. ‘Gates Of The Cemetery #2’, again, sings doom and gloom and then resurrection, And it’s a bluesy acoustic resurrection, which may well be the best kind of return.

‘Salt And Sugar’ “waltzes in a circle” and gazes at the stony bones of life.

The wonderfully titled ‘General Tzu Names The Planets For His Children’ simply submits to the universe.

The final song, ‘Choir Boy’, returns to the Gospel theme of the record. It’s all a bit like the best of (the previously mentioned) Bob Dylan and The Band, who chicken scratched tunes from the blood, sweat, and turf of America.

This album bleeds salvation. It sings a Congregational hymn. It gambles on a Mississippi river boat. It lives in a sod house. Walt Whitman once wrote, ‘I Hear America Singing’. This album just contributes to that acoustic poetic choir.

Bill Golembeski

Artist’s website:

‘In Time For Tomorrow’ – official video:

JOAN BAEZ – Whistle Down The Wind (Proper PRPCD146)

Whistle Down The WndJoan Baez is about to embark on her final world tour. I guess that after more than fifty years of music and activism she has earned the right to kick back for a while. I’d like to think that Whistle Down The Wind won’t be her last album, however. I hope there is still some gas left in the tank. At 77, her voice is still sweet and strong but if you’re hoping for a full-on political treatise, and heaven knows we’re in need of one, you’ll be disappointed. I have no firm information on Joan’s band here but it’s safe to assume that multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell and percussionist Gabriel Harris are in the line-up.

The first two songs lean a little towards the radio-friendly which is surprising given that ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ is penned by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Of course, it doesn’t sound anything like it did on Bone Machine – here it’s given a big sweeping arrangement – but I suppose it’s an expression of restlessness – perhaps a signal to anyone who would write Joan off. Josh Ritter’s ‘Be Of Good Heart’ is next, built on a rich acoustic guitar and minimal bass and percussion. It’s not one of his best known songs but nice enough.

With Anthony And The Johnsons’ ‘Another World’, the album takes off. The song is based on stripped down percussive guitar and it’s about…ecological concerns, the desire for the next life? It is nicely ambiguous. ‘Civil War’, written by producer Joe Henry is intriguing. On the surface, it’s about civilians becoming soldiers in the civil war but beneath that it’s a personal story. ‘The Things That We Are Made Of’ is, I guess, a moving-on song and then we come to Zoe Mulford’s wonderful ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’ with big piano chords giving it real grandeur.  I had the great good fortune to hear Zoe sing this on stage a few weeks ago and I can’t help contrast the song with Trump’s take on the latest school massacre. If you’re looking for a political song; here it is but it’s real life that has made it so.

Joan returns to Waits and Brennan with ‘Last Leaf’, an unambiguous railing against aging. Fortunately, there are a few leaves left on the tree and Tom and Joan are among them. Ritter’s ‘Silver Blade’ harks back to Joan’s early days. It’s no relative of ‘Silver Dagger’ but it sounds very much like a reworked traditional ballad of the sort that made Joan famous. Eliza Gilkyson provides another political song in the shape of ‘The Great Correction’ which is also a companion piece to ‘Another World’ and finally we have Tim Eriksen’s retelling of ‘I Wish That The Wars Were All Over’. Once a traditional British song, it encapsulates both the style of Joan’s early repertoire and one of her enduring concerns.

Whistle Down The Wind succeeds in looking back and looking to the future and it needs time to settle into your consciousness. I do hope that Joan will be back, though.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

‘Last Leaf’ – live:

BILLY BRAGG & JOE HENRY – live at G Live, Guildford

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry
Photograph by Dai Jeffries

Shine A Light, the album of railroad songs recorded by Billy Bragg & Joe Henry on their epic train journey from Chicago to Los Angeles has a rough-hewn feel recorded, as it was, in train stations and hotels en route with the sounds of the passers-by left in place. That ambience doesn’t transfer to the stage of a large venue but the reminiscences and stories of the trip. As both were at pains to point out, the railroads are deeply embedded in the American psyche but, these days, almost nobody travels by train any more. Paradoxically, the US transports more goods by train than anyone else which is why it’s the freight train that figures in so many of these songs.

They began without preamble with ‘Railroad Bill’ and seemed rather subdued. I got the distinct impression that Billy was itching to get political but had to restrain himself. They followed that with ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’, still a great song, ‘John Henry’ and ‘In The Pines’. In San Antonio, the pair stayed at the Gunter Hotel and Billy was given room 414 where they had to record a song – but not a Robert Johnson one as that would have been “blasphemous” according to Joe. The first segment closed with ‘Early Morning Rain’ and I’m still undecided about casting it a railroad song. In the mid-sixties, when it was written, air travel was still something of novelty for the ordinary man or woman and it seemed to be more about the distances between people. That said, Gordon Lightfoot agreed that it was an updating of the image of a hobo hanging around a train yard trying for a ride so what do I know?

Billy left the stage at this point for Joe’s solo set and this was a big ask. Joe is a sophisticated, literate song-writer and his natural style is at odds with the folkiness of the main part of the show. His homage to Cole Porter and the great American songbook was masterful. The song may have been ‘After The War’ but Joe wasn’t big on introductions. He was received with more than politeness by an audience that probably hadn’t read beyond the first two words of the show’s billing. This was particularly so when he switched to piano for a couple of numbers, putting one in mind of Billy Joel, and ‘Our Song’ was one of the highlights of the evening.

Billy opened the second half and it was clear that this was his audience. ‘Between The Wars’ coupled with ‘Help Save The Youth Of America’ have lost none of their significance and neither has ‘There Is Power In A Union’, while Anaïs Mitchell’s ‘Why Do We Build The Wall?’ is a recent addition to his repertoire.

Joe Henry rejoined Billy for their return to the railroad and added a country flavour with ‘Lonesome Whistle’ and ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ before finishing with ‘Midnight Special’ – the original call-and-response version which makes no mention of pig iron. Their first encore was ‘Gentle On My Mind’ which is a better song than memories of Dean Martin might have you believe. They followed that with two songs that don’t feature on the album. First came Dylan’s ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’ which is the antithesis of the hobo always moving on, and finally Woody Guthrie’s ‘Ramblin’ Round’, the archetypal hobo song.

For all its good points I’m not wholly convinced that the show worked in the way it was structured. Joe Henry was perhaps too much of a contrast and Billy Bragg was…well, Billy Bragg. The audience did enjoy a good rant, though.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ websites:

Venue website:

‘Gentle On My Mind’ – official video:

BILLY BRAGG & JOE HENRY – Shine A Light (Cooking Vinyl COOKCD623)

Shine A LightBilly Bragg is fine songwriter but I do enjoy it when he goes off piste like this but Shine A Light is rather more in Joe Henry’s territory. The album is subtitled “Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad” but the inclusion of MOR standards like ‘Gentle On My Mind’ and ‘Early Morning Rain’ stretch the point a bit.

The album opens with ‘Rock Island Line’, a prison song possibly referring to the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad  In fact, the album was recorded during various stops on a railroad journey from Chicago to Los Angeles; no fancy studios so what you might take for found sound is simply what was happening around the musicians. The song recorded in Chicago was Jean Ritchie’s wonderful ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’ and you can trace their journey on the album website – or you will when the album is released in a couple of month’s time. So far, we know that ‘Railroad Bill’ was recorded in St. Louis but what happens in Fort Worth, El Paso and Tucson we’ll have to wait and see.

For a basically simple concept, Billy and Joe work in some neat tricks. They divide ‘Rock Island Line’ by singing half a line each on opposite channels (Billy is on the left, of course) and for ‘Lonesome Whistle’, Billy reaches down into his boots for a bass vocal line which he finds again for Sara Carter’s ‘Railroading On The Great Divide’. Essentially though, this is two guys, two guitars and a harmonica enjoying each other’s musical company. Johnny Cash’s ‘Waiting For A Train’ is another top track, perfectly suited to this laid-back approach as is Woody Guthrie’s ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ but I’m still not sure about ‘Gentle On My Mind’.

Dai Jeffries

‘Midnight Special’ – somewhere in America:

Video Wall

It’s too hot for thinking and writing so we’ll take the opportunity to post some of the many videos we’ve received recently: the first of our Video Wall series.

First, here’s Kat Healey with ‘Hearts Entwined’ from her EP, Wolf.

Next we have Billy Bragg and Joe Henry with their version of Jean Ritchie’s great song ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’.

Have we shown you this one? It’s worth seeing again: the title track from Yvonne McDonnell’s EP, Endless Soul.

Finally, here’s Annie Keating with ‘Lucky’ from a One On One live session in New York.

Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream – Released April 2nd on Proper Records

With the release of her nineteenth album, Slipstream, Bonnie Raitt is starting anew. The album marks her return to studio recording after seven years; it’s coming out as the launch of her own label, Redwing Records; and it delivers some of the most surprising and rewarding music of her remarkable career, thanks in part to some experimental sessions with celebrated producer Joe Henry.

The years before and after Raitt’s last album, 2005’s acclaimed Souls Alike, weren’t an easy time for her, with the passing of parents, her brother, and a best friend. So after following that album with her usual long run of touring—winding up with the “dream come true” of the “BonTaj Roulet” revue with Taj Mahal in 2009 and a triumphant appearance at the all-star Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concerts the same year— she decided to step back and recharge for a while.

“I took a hiatus from touring and recording to get back in touch with the other part of my life,” she says. “On the road, under stress, it’s hard to stay in balance and move forward.” Excited to have time at home and with her family and friends, she could go to the symphony, check out live jazz and Cuban shows, and so much else. She continued her ongoing political work, helping to organize in 2007 and supporting her favorite non-profit organizations. “I didn’t have to be the professional version of myself for a long time,” she says. “It wasn’t so much a vacation as a chance to take care of a lot of neglected areas of my life, a lot of processing after all that loss and activity.”

When she started thinking about making music again, Bonnie knew she needed to try something out of the ordinary. “I was really interested in working with different people, and someone I had always been drawn to was Joe Henry,” she says. “I’m a big fan of his writing and albums and love the work he’s done producing Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke, and others. I thought it would be really intriguing to see what we could come up with. Coincidentally, he had been wanting to call me as well. Our first phone call lasted over two hours.”

They found a brief window when Henry’s usual crew of musicians was available, augmented by a new friend of Bonnie’s, the magnificent guitarist Bill Frisell. “I didn’t have to produce or get the band together, I could just show up and sing,” she says. “I came to Joe’s with, to use a Zen expression, ‘beginner’s mind.'” The experiment yielded eight songs in 48 hours, and Raitt was inspired to get back to work full force. “I loved singing these songs and playing with these guys so much,” she says, “This was just the jumpstart I needed to get me back in the saddle and wanting to work on a new album.”

She plans to release the full results of the Joe Henry sessions down the line, but for now she chose to include four of these tracks on Slipstream —the Henry originals “You Can’t Fail Me Now” (co-written with Loudon Wainwright III) and “God Only Knows,” and two songs from Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album, “Million Miles” and “Standing in the Doorway.”

The album’s title is very significant for Bonnie —Slipstream isn’t just a beautiful sounding word, but an indication of her place in the music community. “I’m in the slipstream of all these styles of music,” she says. “I’m so inspired and so proud to continue these traditions, whether it’s reggae or soul or blues. I’m in the slipstream of those who came before me, and I’m leaving one for those behind me. I’m holding up the traditions of the music that I love.”

Artist’s website: