Hailing from Cannock in the area known as the Black Country (more notable for heavy rock, courtesy of Glenn Hughes (also from Cannock) Priest, Zeppelin and Sabbath) JR Harbidge has travelled his own route and brings a fresh approach to what some call rock Americana, but JR calls acoustic rock with a country twang. (Apparently his father was friends with Rob Halford.)
Prior to this, he saw some success with a band called Third Bullet but, along with a move to Derbyshire, things weren’t meant to be; there is always a silver lining however, and he met and started working with Pete Larkin and the debut album, First Ray Of Light was born.That first album had hints of Crosby Still and Nash and a bit of Petty-ness, but still stood out as original.
Now we have the follow up, enticingly called Long Black River whose cover shows him astride a river with conflict on one side and harmony on the other. Opening track, Wrong Side Of The Fight, has had a long gestation and is a fascinating insight into the art of writing; as JR says, “It’s a song that started life when we were fifteen and got completed when I turned forty-one…I remember having that music on a 4-track X28H multi- track recorder as a teenager and I have spent years trying to get a melody for it. That song waited until 2020 to disclose it’s undeclared magic. Songwriting is a mysterious process, isn’t it?”
Wrong Side Of The Fight starts us off with acoustic strumming, organ washes and multi-tracked vocals that deliver a (very) soft rock number which, taking the chorus into account, brings Petty to mind again…however, the acoustic solo interlude is delightful. Break The Spell adds some electric guitar to the formula but it stays essentially the acoustic/organ rock approach; electric is back for a measured solo.
We Don’t Talk About It brings the first hint of country in a slow, almost languid song with strings backing the main melody…an almost Eagles like song. Sunshine Not Rain is more country but with an electric edge and an electric piano giving it depth. It has a poppy edge too that does work.
Side By Side starts with swelling Hammond that an old rocker like me expected to burst into something weighty…but this is JR, so harmonica and acoustic develop a neat melody with a couple of nice harp interludes (I’m sure it is him harping as it seems he can play just about any damn instrument!)
You Saved Me Twice would be a country hit if it were attached to one of the ‘big names’ over the pond; hopefully they will hear it and either get him over there or do a cover. The lap steel (or slide to sound like it) adds to the countrification and, although the chorus suits a rockier song, it all blends together very well.
Open The Door uses the electric nicely to make a CSNY kind of feel (mercifully, JR is a good vocalist, unlike Y!) on this slow complex but accessible song. The electric solo is distinctly rock style but fits seamlessly into this softer style.
When The Sun Doesn’t Shine is much more upbeat in a country rock, Eagles style…the piano and organ pin this one down very well and the lack of a solo is actually OK. We Don’t Like It is, inevitably, my favourite as the Kinks-y intro leads into an electric riff and a whole more rock with that rolling riff backed by the Hammond; the drop back into the phased guitar and the vocals (I thought) was going to give an example of rock soloing…I was wrong; never mind, still a good song.
Long Black River is a great way to end as JR does a rock song that many a mid 80s American metal band would have been proud to include as their weighty ballad. We even get an electric solo that shows how to put feeling into a piece…so, on second, third listen, this is now my favourite.
Although this isn’t my normal fare, it is a faultless collection of what JR intended: Derbyshire/Americana/Country/Rock songs that, if you do want to relax to Eagles/CSNY style that is as good as any out there, then this is for you.
Bluesdoodles rating: 4 Doodle Paws – A Great Listen for Americana lovers that want quality, structure and perspicacity.
1. Wrong Side Of The Fight
2. Break The Spell
3. We Don’t Talk About It
4. Sunshine Not Rain
5. Side By Side
6. You Saved Me Twice
7. Open The Door
8. When The Sun Doesn’t Shine
9. We Don’t Like It
10. Long Black River
Produced, engineered, mixed and mastered by J R Harbidge
All songs written by Harbidge except “You Saved Me Twice” written by Harbidge/Gherbaz
JR Harbidge – guitar, vocals
Drums – Mark Bates
Piano / Organ – Pete Larkin
Bass – Thom Mapes
Solo in Long Black River – Paul Scott Connop
Electric Guitar in You Saved Me Twice – Nick Clark
(The iTunes run on track took me to an album I bought in 2010, simply because Graham Bonnet did all the vocals: Yellow Mind:Blue Mind was released under the J21 name, a sort of prog collective under the leadership of Trey Gunn. Fortunately it is actually very good!)