Features

Light You Up: Shawn Mullins and Max Gomez Live

Moe’s Alley, Santa Cruz, CA, USA; July 26, 2018

by Jason Warburg

shawnmullins_500Yeah, okay, fine, he wrote that song on the radio, the one that went “Ev-uh-ree-thing’s gonna be alright / Rock-a-bye” while extending “everything” to four distinctly enunciated syllables and most of an octave—but Shawn Mullins is and always has been so much more than that one magical earworm.

By the time “Lullaby” and the album it sprang from, Soul’s Core, came out in 1998, Mullins had already been an active recording artist for nearly a decade, and he’s kept at it steadily ever since, building a repertoire of soulful Americana that reaches into blues, country, rock and pop in search of supple melodies with which to soundtrack a string of memorable characters drawn from his Southern upbringing and often nomadic existence.

Mullins’ latest tour commemorates the 20th anniversary of Souls’ Core—which he’s just re-recorded in both solo acoustic and full-band renditions for a deluxe double-CD edition coming out later this year via PledgeMusic—with an all-star band behind him and support from occasional songwriting partner and kindred spirit Max Gomez.

Opening up solo acoustic to an initially shy crowd of 100 or so partisans at cozy Moe’s Alley, Gomez thoroughly charmed the crowd with songs and stories that mixed rhythmic acoustic work, sharp vocals and a lyrical sensibility that feels very much of the moment, singing with humor and pathos about alienation and hanging onto your values and identity in a world that seems to want nothing more than to turn you into another cog in the machine. Near the end of Gomez’ 35-minute set, a proud-uncle-y Mullins and two bandmates joined in to support their young compadre on background vocals and accordion.

After a short break, the headliner emerged to a warm welcome that felt entirely in keeping with the character of his music, which is to say, the crowd showered love on Mullins and band while the man up front simply nodded, flashed a grin, and got to work. As expected, fully a third of his 17-song set was drawn from Soul’s Core, but it might have been anyhow, since that album remains the strongest set of tunes he’s ever recorded. The fascination came in seeing how well-traveled songs like the sinuous “Anchored In You” and grooving, bluesy “Gulf Of Mexico” worked alongside latter-day standouts like the rolling-and-tumbling barroom rocker “Beautiful Wreck” and the dark, brooding “Ferguson.” In the end it all feels of a piece, because it’s all so very Shawn Mullins—soulful, melodic, incisive and deeply felt.

As he’s wont to do, road dog Mullins threw in a passel of covers, starting with a rumbling take on Johnny Cash’s “The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore.” Moments later the ever-gracious Mullins welcomed Gomez back to the stage to trade verses on their jangly co-write “Roll On By” off of Mullins’ most recent studio outing My Stupid Heart (2015). Next was one of the evening’s highlights, a gorgeous full-band reinterpretation of the originally solo acoustic story-song “Twin Rocks, Oregon,” long a personal favorite. For an exclamation point, Mullins followed with a rip-roaring rendition of the rarely-performed “Tannin Bed Song,” another dark character sketch seemingly drawn from Mullins’ Georgia roots.

shawnmullinslive1_500The main set finished strong with a heartfelt “Shimmer” followed by hard-rocking closer “Cold Black Heart,” before Mullins and crew reappeared for a three-song encore comprised of the inevitable “Lullaby”—freshened up by a sneaky head-fake intro—plus a pair of terrific covers: an explosive extended take on The Animals classic “House of the Rising Sun” and a breath-restoring, wistful reading of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down.”

Mullins has toured quite a bit solo acoustic over the years, but this time out he’s got a full band with him, and what a crew it is: Patrick Blanchard (electric and acoustic guitar), Radoslav Lorkovic (keyboards and accordion), Tom Ryan (bass and harmony vocals), the irrepressible Gerry Hansen (drums) and the inimitable Davis Causey (electric and slide guitar) simply play the hell out of Mullins’ songs. Every time one of these guys blew me away, another one stepped up and pushed the rest of them even harder. Still, it’s hard not to shower extra praise on Causey, a 40-year veteran of the scene who looks like your skinny grandpa and plays like a man possessed, delivering one stinging, resonant solo after another while repeatedly leaving his bandmates grinning in open admiration.

Mullins’s music is a rich combination of heart and art, with characters both shady and sunny brought to life by the man’s novelistic lyrics and innate melodic sense. If I could have asked him one question at the after-show, it would have been why he so rarely plays anything from his very strong 2000 album Beneath The Velvet Sun. All I can think is that it may be heavy with baggage from the one major-label experience of his career. Still, like every album Mullins has issued since, it was a damned good batch of songs.


Setlist

Anchored in You
Beautiful Wreck
California
Light You Up
The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore (Johnny Cash cover)
Sunshine
Roll On By (with Max Gomez)
Twin Rocks, Oregon
Tannin Bed Song
Pre-Apocalyptic Blues
Ferguson
The Gulf of Mexico
Shimmer
Cold Black Heart

-Encores-

Lullaby
The House of the Rising Sun (The Animals cover)
Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down (Kris Kristofferson cover, with Max Gomez)



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