God Bless Americana
Jeffrey Halford, who plays Sly's this weekend, brings a new and authentic voice in from the road.
Thursday, October 4, 2001
From the opening chords of Jeffrey Halford''s National Resolectric guitar on his second CD, Hunkpapa, there''s a feeling of something special going on. There''s a Delta-bluesy guitar sequence that quickly devolves into something that sounds like second-line funk making love to alt-rock on Robert Johnson''s grave. Even without words, "Stone''s Throw" is an ominous song that flows inexorably to tragedy. Add the lyrics and the song becomes a haunting, contemporary tribute to the dark side of life and love.
"Inside they''re cutting up a rug
Lifting up a jug,
About a stone''s throw away
When the shovel hits the mud.... Too much will make you crazy
Not enough will do you in
She wanted it all
He wanted more than one... The music pushed on
Their bodies caressed
Her blade pierced through a pin-striped vest..."
Halford''s debut performance this weekend at Sly McFly''s comes near the end of a national tour promoting this great new album. It''s a roadtrip that''s taken him from his San Francisco home, through Texas, as far east as Nashville and back to California. On his way into Denver from Kansas City, between bursts of cell phone static, Halford talked about "Stone''s Throw," and the rest of his album that''s picking up favorable notice from critics and DJs across the country.
"''Stone''s Throw,'' yeah. It''s a dark love song. It''s very much like a step into the life of the Delta blues and how they really lived," Halford says. "The Delta blues is something that I really love. I think it''s just so interesting, if you look at the way people lived and loved."
The rest of Hunkpapa (named after a band of the Sioux tribe) follows in the same vein, with much of the album paying tribute to great Americans and American movements. "Oh, Susanna" is a combination love song/soliloquy as sung by a Civil War soldier at Ambrose Bierce''s Owl Creek; "Black Gold" commemorates the oil rush in California''s San Joaquin Valley; the topic for the percussive, rocking "Crazy Horse" chronicles the degradation of the title character''s name; "Satchel''s Fastball" is filled with a young ballplayer''s confidence despite the color line that divided the Negro Leagues from the rest of Major League baseball; and the album''s closing track, "Straight Razor," focuses on the pride of a hobo claiming his place on a train.
With "Memphis," Halford conjures up images of music as a dangerous force.
"The wolf, the killer
The man in black
Wrong side of the railroad tracks
Elvis Aaron and Reverend Green
Don''t forget about Mr. B.B. King..."
Interspersed between these are songs about life and love, as well as a couple that don''t quite fit into any neat package. On some albums, these might be seen as a distraction. But here, they seem to put the rest of the album into a more personal context. Of particular note is ".44," a powerful piece about gunfire and mistaken identities.
"I cut 20 songs, then whittled it down to 12 to really have a focus," Halford says. "I''m certainly hitting on America, the way Americans are, and our history. The things that I love. I write what I''m passionate about."
Complementing the lyrical American theme is Halford''s music. A blend of folk, blues and rock, with a dash of country and splash of pop, the album comes off sounding comfortable and familiar but at the same time fresh and, in some places, altogether riveting.
There are a lot of critics around the country who are very high on Halford''s powerful and poetic storytelling, as well as the richness of his music. One writer, Buddy Siegal from the Orange County Weekly, got so carried away that he compared Hunkpapa with Bob Dylan''s Highway 61 Revisited. I hear more Dave Alvin than Dylan, but it''s not a bad comparison. Like Dylan, Halford is concerned as much with social issues as with personal considerations; there''s a simmering anger that seems to drive both, and there''s a feeling of desolation that haunts Highway 61 and Hunkpapa as they hit the road in search of America''s soul.
It''s been a couple years since Halford''s been through town (in times past, he played both Blue Fin Billiards and Doc Rickett''s) and obviously he''s matured both as a singer and a songwriter since the release of his first album, Kerosene, in 1999.
Jeffrey Halford and The Healers play Sly McFly''s on Saturday at 9pm. 649-8050.