Jeremiah Johnson is in Heavens To Betsy

Prior to hearing his first album, I thought Jeremiah Johnson was only a Robert Redford film…turns out he is also an accomplished blues singer, composer, and guitarist, and a damn sight better than that film! For his sixth release (the second on the blues centric Ruf Records) JJ has moved slightly away from pure blues-rock that dominated on his Straightjacket album, and injected a heavy dose of Southern Rock which is OK by me as it is still firmly blues-based. It also reveals a move toward the song first, riff second approach, coupled with some highly personal lyrics…this move delivers what I consider JJ’s best album yet as he has brought in a more varied and passionate feel to all aspects of the compositions. Throw in a cover of one of Booker T and William Bell’s classics, and you get a very satisfying dozen tracks of skill and imagination, even if only a couple of songs break the four-minute barrier.

Opening with White Lightning, the South burns through the intro with the spirit of the Allmans in the background: the way the sax harmonises is classy too and shows how a sax doesn’t have to be intrusive. The guitar and vocals are spot-on for a song about a farmer with “kids to feed”, and the atmosphere is enhanced with the subtle pedal usage, particularly in the short and sweet solo and the climax. Tornado moves us into a funk-tinged rock with the South retained…sax and guitar again in harmony leaves space for a girl whose temperament reflects the title! JJ leaves the solo to the end and puts in some neat runs and bends.

Soul Crush is Radar Love with sax at the beginning but evolves into a wah inflected blues/Southern rock piece that is excellent…especially with the two short solos that use the guitar’s range rather than just the top couple of strings and frets. Ecstasy is a move to a soul-tinged blues…a nearly ballad with a lover’s message backed with lovely guitar and sax punctuations and the keys adding depth. The guitar solo again shows the inherent feel that JJ has for playing with inventiveness, empathy, and skill…he even gives a nod to Hendrix with just two chords.

Forever And A Day has a clever almost discordant intro before it moves into a more standard blues-rock pattern. It is familiar but different enough that it is only after a few listens that its complexity and detail reveal the true nature and imaginative structure. American Steel has a Motown feel that suits the lyrics; the steel in question is that used to make cars…the guitar solo is frenetic and, at first listen, doesn’t quite fit but after a few run throughs, it most certainly does.

Showdown is sax heavy at the start but when the short guitar highlights behind the lyrics come into play, it lifts it…the JJ puts in a solo that should have lasted for the whole song, and don’t miss the neat playing toward the end. Leo Stone is next and is all about the impending birth of his son….now delivered! It’s a true Southern Rock song with country colour: acoustic guitar, keys, and sax providing the melody before a subtle and nicely picked solo. Castles In The Air takes us down the blues-rock road but a hint of R’n’B gives it a different feel. It has a simple but effective riff and some tasty guitar breaks and a solo to cherish too. Long Way Home is a ballad with a slow blues base…JJ keeps it simple so that the heartfelt lyrics aren’t overpowered. The relative sparseness allows you to appreciate fully the talents of the rest of the band too…the drumming is so empathetic and the use of bell of the cymbal is a lesson for many.

Next, is the cover mentioned at the beginning…Born Under A Bad Sign has been covered so many times and, I suppose, Cream’s version is the first to spring to mind…JJ does it justice with the stinging guitar phrases present and correct. The harmonising sax again gives it a new colour while retaining the bite of the original. The solo is simply stunning even if it gets faded out for goodness sake!

The album wraps up with Preachers Daughter and provides a surprise as the band takes us into the roadhouse and all the way back to the rock and roll of the 50s…so my Dad told me! Then they throw in a very apt sax solo and then an a capella gospel chorus, just to keep us guessing. JJ and his talented band have delivered a highly entertaining album with blues aplenty indelibly stamped on the other sub-genres they so neatly bring into the songs. It should appeal to blues, rock and even soul and country fans that like a bit of weight to their more normal fare…give it a try, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Bluesdoodles rating: Wonderful: a varied and bluesy selection for most palates.

Track Listings

  1. White Lightning
  2. Tornado
  3. Soul Crush
  4. Ecstasy
  5. Forever And A Day
  6. American Steel
  7. Showdown
  8. Leo Stone
  9. Castles In The Air
  10. Long Way Home
  11. Born Under A Bad Sign
  12. Preachers Daughter


Jeremiah Johnson: Vocals, Guitars

Frank Bauer: Saxophone, Backing Vocals

Tony Anthonis: Bass Guitar

Benet Schaeffer: Drums

Rick Steff: Keyboards

Tony Antonelli: Percussions, Backing Vocals

Pete Matthews: Backing Vocals

Produced by Pete Matthews

Recorded at the High/Low Recording Studio in Memphis, Tennessee.

(The iTunes run on track served up a real blast from the past…Jethro Toe: yes Toe, not Tull. Their first recording was a single on MGM records and wrongly labeled! Regardless, this is early Tull with Ian Anderson on fine form on a song called Aeroplane. It was a bugger to find but was eventually released on a CD collection based around the legendary producer, Derek Lawrence, and collated loads of ‘out there’ stuff and well worth seeking out.)

Jeremiah Johnson is in Heavens To Betsy

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