Ozzie Wizard of the Slide

These days, to discover an original is something. And Jeff Lang is just that. While some folks are great players and others are great writers, it’s seldom the two come wrapped in the same package. Dylan and Cohen are genius lyricists but most music school grads these days could outperform them. Though not out-write them. You get my point. And while I adore all the old blues giants and the whole stewpot of blues cousins, as a writer I’m too often disappointed by the lyrics. These days songwriters seem almost born world aware and politically engaged. But the capacity to write truly aching, unforgettable lines takes a poet. “There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Something in your head just goes ‘twang’ when you read that line.

Jeff Lang ripping it up in the picture-perfect Kootenay frame, Kaslo Jazzfest 2014. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Jeff Lang ripping it up in the picture-perfect Kootenay frame, Kaslo Jazzfest 2014. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Occasionally you get a Hendrix who is both a top athlete of his instrument and a totally original songwriter. Or a Roy Harper, an equestrian on the guitar strings, and a deft, imaginative poet. But often you’ll find virtuoso musicians using other writers’ material. Call it a quirk of the musical gene. So it’s a genuine delight to discover Jeff Lang. Here’s a guy working in one of the oldest of blues forms, the laptop slide—on an acoustic. His technique is blistering, as I found to my jaw-dropping shock at this year’s Kaslo Jazzfest. I’d never seen a lap slide guitar like that before—with the acoustic body all the way up the underside of the neck. But hell, can Lang make that thing sing!

The late great Jeff Healey, another slide wizard who played Kaslo Jazzfest.

Lang’s head-spinning speed with the slide derives from a mastery of right-hand technique. Full use of all five fingers. The ergonomics of ease created by having the thing in your lap. As soon as I saw it I was reminded of Canada’s late great Jeff Healey, often seen with a Strat in his lap. Lang seems to prefer acoustic guitars, except in his cover of Tom Waits’ Bone Machine album (well worth a listen.) I saw him get sounds out of his folk guitar in Kaslo that would have made Hendrix himself jealous. But then I guess effects boxes these days can make a wind-up mouse sound like an elephant. The fact is, Lang came out by himself but only in body. The music he made with those ten fingers tumbled over us like a calliope. It’s some of the most original use of slide guitar I’ve ever heard. And that’s saying a helluva lot, remembering that we also have such geniuses as Sonny Landreth and Derek Trucks working.

Lang’s easy, slightly sharp humour kept the key changes seamless and it’s clear he’s not happy with the political situation in his home turf down under. Which brings us to another question: How does a guy that good play for 20 years before he’s known outside of Australia? Or is it just me? He seems to have a somewhat legendary status at home. I see he had only two Canadian dates in his current tour to promote his new album I Live in My Head a Lot These Days.[1] Which by the way, I’m going to declare an instant classic. I bought it with the idea that it was blues, not expecting to find an Aussie Leonard Cohen with chops. This man writes lyrics like a poet. Even the titles can give you shivers: Waiting for the Headlights Through the Blinds. Drunk on the Promise Of New Year’s Eve. I Wanna Run But My Legs Won’t Stand. “Don’t look down or you might slip / and end up falling under the pull of the drift…” Combine smart, vivid lyrics with the six-string wizardry of The Pull of the Drift and you’ve got yourself a one-way ticket to nirvana. “I’m waiting for the headlights through the blinds / like a candle flame my evenings unwind…”

A legend down under, just breaking here. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

A legend down under, just breaking here. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Lang’s lyrical canvas roams the globe, starting from the gritty streets of Melbourne. Even that he writes of bittersweetly in This Town’s Not Your Hometown Anymore. “Buses still running, but the numbers all changed / high street’s still here but the shops have all changed…” When he sang it from the floating stage in Kaslo I had to wonder what he thought of a village with barely 1,200 souls in it. If he’s like other musicians I’ve heard exuding from that stage over the years, he probably wishes he could live here—at least part of the time. I was immediately struck by the powerful relevance of his songs. Lang writes about domestic violence (Gunshot Nights, a blistering tune), date rape (I Wanna Run But My Legs Won’t Stand), street violence (Watch Me Go), and so on. The amount of range he squeezes out of a slide guitar is astonishing. Just when you think you have his sound pinned down, he surprises you. Yet it’s still recognizably Lang. From the almost sea shanty opening of Watch Me Go with its dizzy jig on the guitar neck to the lowdown, simmering menace of Gunshot Nights, to the almost English gospel of People Will Break Your Heart, you come away astonished. At times Lang’s voice seems high enough to be break like an English schoolboy’s in cathedral. Next thing you know, he’s turned up the gain and is workin’ that chrome bar to peel paint off the walls.

Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer at Kaslo Jazzfest 2014: Blues for the 21st Century. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer at Kaslo Jazzfest 2014: Blues for the 21st Century. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

I kept telling myself that I “owed it” to Lang to write this review. Why I should feel I “owed” it I don’t know. All I know is that music runs a deep vein in me. And when that vein is struck so electrically, I resonate. In fairness I have to say I was equally amazed by Matt Schofield, who came out looking like Johnny Winter in his prime, circa 1970.[2] And played like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Schofield’s right-hand man, Jonny Henderson on keyboards, was another revelation. A seamless blend of technical mastery and passion, pouring out cascades of honeyed Hammond organ. The only thing missing was a real Hammond organ. Schofield’s note-bending calisthenics never became repetitive or rote, always injected with raw soul like the blues guitar greats. Speed is nothing without soul. And Schofield clearly has it. Not only that, like Lang, he too has created an instant classic with his new album Far As I Can See. Not a single dud cut. And so many standout tracks you lose count. Yellow Moon, Clean Break, Red Dragon… this guy has a sweet ear for slinging both bump ’n grind and minor-seventh heaven.

Matt Schofield at Jazzfest proves once again the Brits know their blues. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Matt Schofield at Jazzfest proves once again the Brits know their blues. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

And both were—for me—discovered at Kaslo Jazzfest. There were other revelations at the festival this year: Kelly Lee Evans, George Leach, and the meteoric improvement of The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer. Keep on chooglin’ indeed. That harp dude is knock, knock, knockin’ on Paul Butterfield’s door. And the addition of a female vocal section was brilliant. Putting it on main street Kaslo, looking out over the majesty of Kootenay Lake, that was festival magic. Inspired. You gotta hand it to ‘em, these guys pull off sheer magic, year after year. I take my hat off all the way down to my boots to them all. Volunteers, musicians, staff. Thanks to Jimmy Holland for burning like a brilliant light to keep it happening year after year. As I wrote in my Valley Voice story, it’s not often they can afford the big names—though they’ve certainly had them: Paul Horn, Richie Havens, Ruthie Foster. Yet they have a knack for discovering talent of star quality. That we get to feel and hear it across the waters of Kaslo Bay is just about as good as it gets. Now when I listen to Lang’s Standing on the Shore, I’ll get goosebumps for at least two reasons: The memory of hearing him perform it in Kaslo and the song’s own delicious ache.

Schofield's keys man Jonny Henderson lights up Jazzfest in Kaslo Bay. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Schofield’s keys man Jonny Henderson lights up Jazzfest in Kaslo Bay. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

POSTSCRIPT: To get started on Jeff Lang, check out his pub concert at Lizotte’s. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pt1MxaBMqb0 Though there are some slow moments here, by far the majority of this show will knock your socks off. London, Lubbock, Texas, Ghosting on My Mind, Towards Love, South, The Savannah Way, The Save, Slip Away, Running by the Rock—there’s easily enough here for a live album to rival the greats. With little research I learned that Lang has 15 albums to his credit during his 20-year history, but again, how many people outside Australia knew this? And I have to say that his rendition of Tom Waits’ Bone Machine takes great songwriting and finally makes it listenable. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KUVLUpP6QY Waits sometimes annoys me like that, like Dylan. Lang’s song 12,000 Miles, again in a pub, this time on the Isle of Man, is another incredible performance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3Ul4TivY_A .

[1] Kaslo and the Cowichan festival this summer.

[2] See Johnny Winter And Live at the Fillmore East, 10/3/70, Johnny Winter And Live (1971) and Still Alive and Well (1973). Gives the term ‘guitar god’ a whole new dimension. For my money he seldom equaled this period in his recording career except while working with Muddy Waters.

See also: http://www.valleyvoice.ca/_pdf_2014/ValleyVoice140813web.pdf

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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