Reviews Zone

Garland Jeffreys: 14 Steps To Harlem (Luna Park Records/Republic Of Music) Out now

 


5 Stars (5 / 5)

 

 

Garland Jeffreys. If this cool cat were a building, he’d surely have a preservation order slapped on him! They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. One of the most joyous recordings to land on my desk in a while. If you dig the likes of Van Morrison, Dylan, Springsteen, Petty, Jackson Browne, Steve Earle, Mellencamp, Lou Reed and the like, I’ll bet my sweet bippy you are gonna get moist for this one.

His third album in six years; a dozen gorgeous cuts that get better as the record progresses.  The material; a memoir to growing up in New York,  spans many genres; blues, Americana, roots, rock and roll; all sorts of the good stuff. It has a core of sheer class. Natural, innate, relaxed, chilled as chilled can be. But also urgent and edgy at the same time. His vocal delivery is raw and full of a “no fucks given” attitude. Like Liam Gallagher may sound in his 70s.

Jeffreys is well respected among his peers, recording and performing with a starry cast such as Dr John, The E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen, John Cale, Michael Brecker, James Taylor, Phoebe Snow, Sonny Rollins, U2, Lou Reed, The Rumour, Sly & Robbie, Linton Kwesi Johnson and many more. Phew, that’s some company he keeps. Now 73, but with dexterity of voice and a versatility that defies age, his songs have been covered by many, including hardcore punk legends The Circle Jerks – whose version of his song “Wild In The Streets” is a skater anthem.

Garland is from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, of African-American and Puerto Rican American heritage. Majoring in art history at Syracuse University where he met Lou Reed, before The Velvet Underground became active. Here Garland pens 10 of the dozen songs; apart from the two perfect fit covers. The Beatles “Help” gets a slowed down and tremendously sensitive and emotional treatment, featuring some stunning guitar work from Mark Bosch, channelling George Harrison. Probably my favourite cover of this iconic song. His take on his late mate Lou Reed’s “Waiting For The Man”, penned by Reed and recorded by The Velvet Underground,  one of the standouts from the set – Garland giving it a rockin ’Stones’ flavour. The vocal exploiting his falsetto, which makes him sound decades younger.

He is joined by Brit-born, New York-based artist James Maddock across this record, on electric and acoustic guitars, lap steel, bass, mandolin, harmonica, piano, whistles, percussion and shaker, and to prove he’s adept at multi-skilling, James is the album’s co-producer too, with Garland. I knew James as a youngster when he lived with his parents in Blaby, Leicestershire back in the late 1970s, and when he fronted a band called SRO aka Standing Room Only. He made a solo album which was a startling calling card for such a young chap, which I still own today.

The vocal and the song writing was way beyond his young years. Since then, he moved to the USA and won praise from the likes of Springsteen, and has made some acclaimed releases over the years. Garland Jeffrey’s unique style and eclectic but rootsy approach is not too far away from James Maddock’s, so his involvement in the making of this album is a good fit and adds huge value to Garland’s cause.

“Spanish Heart” celebrates his Puerto Rican heritage. Driving 80s electronica on “When You call My Name”. A great groove nailed on the boogie-soaked “Schoolyard Blues”, tales of being picked on for being the tallest kid in class. Since the first spin of this album, one track has indelibly etched itself into my memory and I find myself humming the hook every now and again. Track five, “Reggae On Broadway” which UK-based dub legend Dennis Bovell had a hand in, playing keyboard and producing the mix. Inspired by the shows by The Clash at Bonds on Times Square in 1981 and Joe Strummer showing up at one of Garland Jeffreys’ gigs.

The title track stands out for me, memories of his Father, as the perfect calling card for what Mr Jeffreys does and how he does it. It’s a real gem of a cut, with Van the Man vibes, including some gorgeous piano from Ben Stivers. Another song Van could make his own is the sweet ballad “I’m A Dreamer”. “Venus” a love song to his wife, is one of those songs you think you have heard before. A Jagger-esque flavour to the vocal. A lovely duet with his daughter Savannah Jeffreys  (also on piano) on the melancholic ballad “Time Goes Away”, featuring cool acoustic guitar from the hands of James Maddock. A perfect end to a perfect album with the beautiful “Luna Park Love Theme,” channelling Neil Young’s wistful and rasping raw vocal on a ballad set on Coney Island. Just James Maddock’s acoustic guitar, Ben Stivers’ tasteful piano licks and Laurie Anderson’s mournful electric violin (which sticks to the lower register and sounds just like cello) for company on this stripped down cut.

Garland played guitar on John Cale‘s 1969 debut solo album “Vintage Violence and contributed the song “Fairweather Friend”. In 1969 he founded Grinder’s Switch with Woodstock-area musicians. Lewis Merenstein, producer of Van Morrison’s iconic “Astral Weeks”, produced their one album before the band dissolved in 1970. In 1973, he released his first solo album, “Garland Jeffreys, on Atlantic Records. Around the same time Atlantic also released a single, “Wild in the Streets,” that was not included on the album. Jeffreys wrote the song after hearing about a pre-teen rape and murder in the Bronx. Dr. John played clavinet and helped arrange the song, with the Brecker Brothers on horns. After the single’s rerelease in 1977, the track received airplay, and became an unofficial anthem for the skate community after the cover by The Circle Jerks was featured in the 1986 film Thrashin’. It has also been covered by several artists since then. In 1977 Garland recorded his “Ghost Writer album for A&M Records, with “Wild in the Streets” included on side two.  

The next years saw a string of albums, five within five years. After a break, Jeffreys released “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat, devoted to the complexities of race in America. The title was triggered by an incident at Shea Stadium where Jeffreys, enjoying the game stood to get a hotdog when a voice shouted “Hey buckwheat, sit down. In 1992, Jeffreys’ recording of “Hail Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll” on RCA, spent one week in the UK Chart. After taking a lengthy hiatus to raise his only child, daughter Savannah, he began to perform again in 2001, and joined Bruce Springsteen at his legendary Christmas show in Asbury Park and annually at the Springsteen supported The Light of Day Foundation shows. Jeffreys was featured in the 2003 documentary “The Soul of a Man, directed by Wim Wenders as the fourth installment of the documentary film series The Blues produced by Martin Scorsese.

After a long career on major labels, in 2011 Jeffreys formed his own Luna Park Records label and released comeback album “The King of In Between. The Circle Jerks cover of “Wild in the Streets” was used in a commercial for Vans footwear and on the 2012 video game Max Payne 3. Other TV and film placements for “Wild in the Streets” include Life on Mars, The Get Down on Netflix (also included on the official soundtrack), and a L’Oreal commercial. In 2012, at the Pinkpop Festival in Landgraaf, Holland, Jeffreys joined Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band onstage for a performance of “96 Tears” which Jeffreys covered on his 1980 album “Escape Artist”. In 2016 he was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.

Garland Jeffreys’ “14 Steps To Heaven”, is the perfect antidote to mediocrity and as a reviewer who wades through piles and pies of donkey droppings daily, to find the odd gold nugget, this man is the undisputed saviour of my sanity. Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou……………..

 

By Simon Redley

 

  


 

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