I've been playing guitar long enough to know I'll never be much good at at. I always enjoy listening to a really good guitarist, and some of my all time favourite artists are people who can play guitar parts I can hardly dream of playing. Lately I've been enjoying Jeff Lang's new CD, "Chimeradour", as I always enjoy pretty much everything he does.
First and foremost Lang is a guitarists' guitarist. He has a devoted following which I suspect includes way more than the average proportion of wannabe guitar players like me. He's essentially a blues player, but if that label conjures up stereotype pictures of guys playing 12-bar and singing about their dead dog, think again. Lang skips easily between lap steel, acoustic, electric and resophonic guitars, with intricate parts played in all variety of weird tunings.
But I'm not here to write about the technicalities of guitar playing - as if I could! Instead, I want tell you about the stories he tells.
Unusually for a solo artist, Lang has played with pretty much the same core group of musicians for the past decade or more. This suggests that he's probably fairly easy to get along with, unlike the characters in his songs. Therein you will meet a quite disturbing collection of drunks, murderers, wife-beaters and all manner of dysfunctional relationships.
Yet he has a knack for engaging your sympathy, telling the story from a perspective of someone you may not admire, but at least can empathise with. Like the child narrator of I Don't Like Him Being In Here who describes with deep unease a visit from a male friend which ends with his father in a drunken stupor while his mother and guest take a a long walk in the garden. Or the woman in Another One of Those Days who describes not only her husband's barely hinted at crimes, but her own guilt and self-loathing as she pretends not to see. Or, at a less dramatic level, the cycle of drunkenness and co-dependency of Slow Rooms and Fast Blurred Faces, or the hopeless gamblers of The Janitor. Not to mention his cover of Richard Thompson's The End of the Rainbow, where the child is warned that his happiness will end quickly once he leaves the cradle!
It's not all this bleak - there are tenderer moments, like the wry sexuality of South, and the elation of Things are Coming Back My Way. Yet even here there's worm in the apple. The lover of South happily accepts his offer to die for her, and one beer follows another like magic in Things.... You can be happy in Lang's world, but you shouldn't get too used to it.
No blues album would be complete without a little gospel of some sort. Brownie and Sonny did When the Saints Go Marching In, Rev Gary Davis did 12 Gates to the City, Son House mixed ribaldry with gospel preaching, and Eric Clapton had Give Me Strength. Lang has his own approach. In an earlier live recording there is a moving cover of Don Walker's Damaged People - you'd better be there, God, because there's a lot of damaged people who don't have anything else to rely on. In "Chimeradour" he pens his own version, the full on, upbeat gospel of I Want to Believe.
"Make me believe
Draw me up on high
Believe that I could meet you
in the middle of the air
Make me believe some low fool
could look you in the eye
Where are you now?
Where are you now?
Where are you now?...
Strike off the friction to lend me a spark
I'm waiting for a switch
to get thrown in the dark
We're all dying a slow death
With no time to grieve
Wipe the sweat through my hair
I know I want to believe
Are you listening out there?
I said I want to believe."
There's an excitement about all Lang's songs. It's intense, it's uncomfortable, its definitely not sugary, but it's alive. Even the most criminal, the most desperate, engage us in a way we don't expect. In this world faith is hardly a safe option either, but it too is there to be embraced with all its danger and uncertainty.