Getting Sober For The End Of The World
Lamington Records / Real Deal Productions
Wellington-based singer/songwriter Darren Watson has a new album out. And I’m pretty sure it’s his best. I thought that last time, admittedly. But I reckon Getting Sober trumps the also-wonderful Too Many Millionaires. And speaks, then, to the hallmark of quality and consistency. The new album is warmer, earthier, it relies less on the rigidity of the blues, instead it takes that form of soul music as its heart and starting place and reaches out. Here you will hear upbeat rattlers (Alison Jane) and slow-churn balladry (Another Day). You will hear mischievous jubilance (the title track) and utter sadness soaked through simmering rage (Ernie Abbott). And you might think of John Hiatt and Elvis Costello and Lyle Lovett as much as you think of The BluesTM – which is great, because I’m pretty sure Darren is thinking of those things at least as often as he’s thinking of The BluesTM.
Sober sits alongside Millionaires as something of a companion, or a next step; they are the most alike and like-minded of any two albums in Watson’s catalogue. But there’s more variation on the new album and I also think he’s in the best voice of his career. The vocal performances on the dirge-tempo Another Day and Ernie Abbot are extraordinary. When he lets out a blues wail (One Evil Man, Broken, Preachin’ Blues) it’s pure testifyin’.
And there’s such a feel to these performances. Watson’s on acoustic guitar – adding some bass, organ and percussion at various times too. There’s drums and percussion from Delia Shanly, double bass from Steve Moodie and piano from Dayle Jellyman. This is a regular group that’s worked up such a soulful, slow-burning groove over the last couple of years. Terry Casey’s harmonica joins them on occasion – Casey and Watson have an over 30-year history of collaborations and you feel that connection here. Craig Denham’s accordion is the Flaco Jiménez to Darren Watson’s Ry Cooder on Love That I Had (an ace cover of a lovely Matt Hay song). And the Cold City Horns (Nolan Plunkett on trombone and Jacob Wynne on trumpet) give a nice “final party” shape to the title track’s winning form of pessimism.
It’s such a great set of musical performances.
The only electric guitar on the album comes courtesy of a cameo from Rick Holmstrom, best known across the last decade or so as Mavis Staples’ bandleader and right-hand man. He is boogie and jump-blues and the shadow of Pops Staples all in one.
There’s an extension of some of the themes from the previous record too, there are probably still too many millionaires ruining the world, sure, but the focus is on one in particular for a couple of songs (Self Made, One Evil Man). He’s everyone’s least favourite TV star-turned-politician and sadly not enough peoples least favourite American President. (Though history will peg that correctly).
One of the things I love about this album is the feeling of being in the room, being so near the recording. This is music made for the joy of it. The aim of this is to entertain, to provide quality performances and songs. And that’s where Darren is at a career-best level.
He ends the album with a cover of Robert Johnson’s Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil). It plays on after an original song called Broken which is a blues-soaked confession tune. A heartbreaker that is utterly mesmerising for the vocal, the harmonica part by Casey, the deceptively simple guitar picking and the interplay of these three distinct components. It also perfectly sets up the Johnson cover to conclude.
Darren might not just be a bluesman. He might be a singer songwriter with a great love of pop songs and all forms of what is perhaps best described as roots music but so much of it has come from a deep love and understanding of the blues. And that’s something that’s so earnestly felt here. And in this extraordinarily soulful take on one of Robert Johnson’s less obvious songs to cover we feel all of that and it’s so alive, so vital, so passionate.
Getting Sober has such warmth and heart to it. This is Darren’s finest set of recordings. And you need to hear it.
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