Hightone Records, 1999
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/14/1999
Before receiving a copy of Road to review in the mail, I had never heard of James Keelaghan. After listening to the Canadian folk singer's latest album, I wondered why I had never heard of him before.
Keelaghan reminds me a lot of John Denver and Jim Croce in many ways: he's a guitarist who uses his songs to tell stories that make us think. Like his contemporary Gordon Lightfoot, Keelaghan has a natural style to his songwriting and playing. But unlike the previously named artists, Keelaghan has, for the most part, worked in relative obscurity. If there's any justice in this world, Road will change that forever.
Right from the opening track "Love What A Road," Keelaghan sets himself apart as an artist worth paying close attention to. The layering of the vocal tracks helps to seal the emotional pull of the track, as does Keelaghan's gentle touch on the six-string.
The power of Keelaghan's storytelling gift quickly becomes apparent. If you only glanced at the lyric sheet, "Number 37" might seem to be a story of unrequited love as seen from afar. Instead, it's a surprisingly powerful tale of watching someone achieve their goals with kindness rather than harsh words and deeds. Likewise, "Captain Torres" - geez, if this song doesn't put a tear in your eye, you're heartless or dead. Based on true events, you almost feel like you're in the radio room as the crewmen make their calls home before going down with the ship - and you feel like you're one of the loved ones who come home to the "red lights blinking", having missed that chance to say goodbye. Ka-pow.
Even on the tracks that he did not write, Keelaghan has a way of making the tales his own. Whether it's Sam Larkin's wonderful "Mirabeau Bridge" or Ewan MacColl's moving "My Old Man," Keelaghan attacks these songs in his own style, almost to the point where you'd swear he wrote them.
Even the weakest link in the chain has a message worth learning and repeating. "Who Dies?" is a song that I thought could have used a little more development, but Keelaghan still is able to make his point get across to the listener: enjoy every minute you have, 'cause you never know which one is your last.
If you've ever fallen in love with the works of Croce, Denver or Lightfoot, then Road is a disc you'll want to add to your collection. Even if you've never really cared for folk music, Keelaghan has a way about him that will not only make you love this disc, but will make you want to further discover the genre. Easily, this is one of the best discs I've heard all year.