Here is a man who has been making music most of his life, and yet this is only his second album: the well-received ‘I Hold Gravity’ coming out in 2017. Gerry Spehar (pronounced spey-har, in case you’re wondering) has been playing the guitar since he was thirteen. Although he did perform regularly in his home state of Colorado, and around Europe, responsibility for raising a family meant he got a ‘proper’ job and his talents were put on hold. That last album was full of stories of his upbringing and was co-written and performed with his wife, Sue, who sadly succumbed to cancer just before it was completed. Now he has put together an album of carefully crafted ‘protest songs’.
That description always makes me apprehensive about listening to the rantings of the composer about his or her perceptions of their world. I did approach this one differently however as Gerry is obviously a fan of, and influenced by, the great Woody Guthrie. Guthrie used his music to increase awareness of injustices and privations suffered by so many across the USA, as well as cataloguing the world around him. He was spurned by some and lauded by others and, in 1941, he was actually commissioned to write songs to celebrate the hydro-electric Columbia River Project and the employment it brought: hence ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ and ‘Pastures of Plenty’, for example. He also wrote ‘The Dust Bowl Ballads’ which contained one of his finest creations, ‘Vigilante Man’, and chronicled the devastation caused by the dust storms that ravaged agriculture and it’s dependants in the 1930s. That’s a long-winded way of saying, that if Gerry likes Woody, then he has already earned a fair hearing. (The album is actually dedicated to his wife and to Guthrie).
Gerry is usually referred to as a “folk troubadour”, although I would suggest that “folk” is too narrow an adjective: on this new album, Anger Management, you will hear, yes, folk but also strong elements of country, blues, ragtime, Latin and rock…quite a melange, but one that grows on you despite inevitable preconceptions.
It all starts off with a diatribe against the current President of the United States (ah! that’s what POTUS stands for in the film world), although it ends up as a thank you to the aforementioned, for waking Gerry from political ennui. Thank You, Donald, is a bluegrass ditty with delightful fiddle by Brantley Kearns and banjo from John David and is one of two tracks that carry an ‘explicit’ warning…one ‘f’ word very quietly spoken is all I heard and was not offended. (By the way, if you wish to hear the oft-maligned banjo in all of its configurations and played so brilliantly that any doubts about this marvellous instrument are dispelled, I recommend ‘Recapturing the Banjo’ by Otis Taylor). The song draws you in both lyrically and musically as the instruments manage to paint the background as the story unfolds. Son of an Immigrant is a blues-tinged shuffle illustrating one man’s awakening to the realities of prejudice. The understated electric guitar is the star of this song as it adds to the emotions the lyrics engender. The title track, Anger Management, brings a touch of laid-back rock to the table with some really nice, subtle slide guitar that expands the sound, and makes this one my favourite. A Soldier’s Spiritual is a bitter truth on the neglect of ex-servicemen and the music is a gentle acoustic ballad with pedal steel filling the sound this time. This has a flavour of country across a Dylanesque approach. Pearl Harbor uses that terrible event as an allegory for today’s problematic times. A clever brushed drum overlaid by acoustic and a slightly psychedelic guitar that could have added so much more if it had been higher in the mix. Carnival is next and is the second ‘explicit’ track, although it is again only one ‘f’ word. This has a carnival atmosphere courtesy of the calliope (this a steam driven pipe organ played to capture the attention) that washes across the whole track as Lyndon Johnson gets both barrels in the lyrics. A fun track, even if is only because of the background sounds making you think there is a carnival going on somewhere. The next track, Bitch Heaven, is ragtime acoustic song with a lilt to the instrumentation (with a feel of the early versions of “Out On the Western Plain’), particularly from the percussion. The story this time is pointed at Donald Trump’s father and comes from a Woody Guthrie song about Trump senior’s questionable behaviour as Guthrie’s landlord in an apartment complex called Beach Haven…that becomes Bitch Heaven here. Except for the Bomb is up next and puts the story of a nuclear-ravaged landscape to a ballad like a tune at the beginning, but it bursts with electric guitar chords into a Neil Young-style arrangement, even down to the fuzzed guitar. Barrier Reef is an acoustic ballad complete with fiddle and vocal harmonies. Greed has a 25-second prelude of Latin flavoured horns before the song kicks in with a clever guitar/horn combination, as Gerry rails against greed around the world. Freedom to Grab suggests that, with all of the recent scandals in the film world (Cosby and Weinstein are named), that America has a new amendment to their constitution called the ‘Freedom to Grab’. This is set to a dance floor rhythm and sparse instrumentation. It has a catchiness to it but is trying too hard to lighten the mood of a scandal with humour. Final track, What Would Jesus Do? is an acoustic song in the style of Guthrie as it features a nicely picked guitar over a semi-spoken lyric…a lyric that is a biting commentary of things such as the ‘Mexican wall’ and the NRA.
So if you like folk and Americana with occasional hints of the blues played by a group of very accomplished musicians, then I think you will like this. It is slightly harder to relate to some of the targets of Gerry’s criticisms and cynicism on this side of the pond, but he does manage to weave distasteful subjects into enjoyable song structures. It isn’t all doom; there is a lot to be gleaned from this album. My only real criticism of this finely crafted work is that some of the potent and poignant lyric melodies have a similarity that detracts if you listen to it in one sitting. So although this won’t be a regular on my dock, there is a lot to be learned and enjoyed in its 49 minutes.
SEVENdoodle paws out of TEN …
- Thank You Donald
- Son Of An Immigrant
- Anger Management
- A Soldier’s Spiritual
- Pearl Harbor
- Bitch Heaven
- Except For The Bomb
- Barrier Reef
- Freedom To Grab
- What Would Jesus Do?
Bass & Drums: Marc Doten & Joe Berardi (Anger Management, Carnival, Except For The Bomb); Paul Marshall & Shawn Nourse (all others).
Acoustic Guitar: Gerry Spehar (all songs), John David (Bitch Heaven), Javi Ramos (Barrier Reef) Electric Guitar & Lap Steel: Paul Lacques
Calliope: Marc Doten (Carnival)
Fiddle: Brantley Kearns (Thank You Donald), Gabe Witcher (Barrier Reef)
Banjo: John David (Thank You Donald):
Horns: Tommy Jordan (Greed); Erinn Bone (Greed and Barrier Reef); D. Tiger Anaya and the Silent Majority (Freedom To Grab);
Pedal Steel: Rick Shea (A Soldier’s Spiritual)
Lead Vocals: Gerry Spehar
Backing Vocals: Brantley Kearns (Thank You Donald); Tommy Jordan (Greed); Christine Spehar (Barrier Reef); The Silent Majority (Freedom To Grab); Gerry Spehar (Son Of An Immigrant, Anger Management, Pearl Harbor, Bitch Heaven, Barrier Reef, Greed)