Blue Mesa

Luke Winslow-King

Bloodshot Records, 2018

http://www.lukewinslowking.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/27/2019

The last (and first) time I encountered Luke Winslow-King, he was picking his way through the steaming wreckage of a painful divorce, turning his authentically lived blues into the outstanding 2016 release I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always.

Blue Mesa is Winslow-King’s next chapter, a fresh new album of traditionalist Americana that melds blues, gospel, and New Orleans jazz into a sound that merges past and present. It’s a throwback in the very best sense, real songs made with real instruments, real emotional stakes, and exceptional craft.

While Winslow-King explores a range of mid-20th century American sounds, the roots of all of his work lie in the blues. Opener “You Got Mine” leans on that familiar architecture and feel and arrives feeling like an old friend, a song you must have heard before, maybe performed by someone like B.B. King, but it’s an original that’s animated by Winslow-King’s quiet confidence, matching sweet riffing and rich Hammond organ accents with his smoky, understated vocals.

“Leghorn Women” goes bigger on both guitar and vocals, a swaggering blues-boogie workout that wouldn’t sound out of place musically on a Black Keys album. Winslow-King shows off his vocal prowess again on the title track, a gorgeous little blues ballad whose loping cadence is lit up by a deceptively simple, lilting riff. It’s followed by “Born To Roam,” a sunny, dusty, hard-strummed, easy-going rocker that carries inevitable echoes of Springsteen’s open-road vision without ever devolving into homage. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

While this set of songs mostly looks forward rather than back, “Better For Knowing You” reminds you that the experiences chronicled in Winslow-King’s previous album have left an indelible mark. “Love is a cloud / It holds a lot of rain / But I’m still swimmin’ up through the pain,” he sings, “If things could be different / If I could change time / I would fix things together so you were mine / ‘Cause I’m much better for knowing you.” The naked calm of his vocals only underscores the depth of the pain being exposed on this sharp, tasteful ballad.

The Texas boogie returns in force as “Thought I Heard You” rumbles in, twin guitars, Hammond and thumping rhythm section building steadily to a heavy jam that features Winslow-King’s entire crack band—himself on guitar plus Roberto Luti (guitar), Chris Davis (drums), Christian Carpenter (bass) and Mike Lynch (keys).

From there it’s a quick run through a handful of less consequential numbers—the gospel-tinged but somewhat predictable “Break Down The Walls,” the playful romp “Chicken Dinner” with its sweet Nawlins horn section, and the airy mid-tempo number “After The Rain.” All are well-executed, but none has the weight and impact of what comes before and after. Closer “Farewell Blues” is the song Winslow-King wrote after his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, a country-blues rambler whose deceptively sunny melody counterpoints a lyric tinged with melancholy. Nominally the lament of a drifter who’s always saying goodbye to lovers, its refrain “I’m gonna miss you when you go / I’m gonna miss you when you go away” sticks with you long past the track’s end.

For the most part the lyrics on Blue Mesa lack the visceral bite of those on I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always, but they’re consistently thoughtful and observant; Winslow-King approaches these songs with the care and attention to detail of a master craftsman. Still, what brings them to life is their authenticity and heart. Making music that feels both vintage and modern, of a moment and genuinely timeless, is quite a feat, and Winslow-King pulls it off again and again.

Rating: B+

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