Sunday, November 6, 2016

Larry Long--Dove With Claws--The Melvin James Sessions--A Review--Kinda

by Eddie Allen
Melvin and Larry

The late Johnny Cash coined the phrase "a dove with claws" to describe the fierce pacifism that grew from his first-hand look at America's endless wars while entertaining soldiers in Vietnam. Cash's words are a perfect description for the life and work of Larry Long. And they are now the title of Larry's newest recording, the subject of my words that follow.

But first, this.

I have been friends with Larry  since I saw him walking up my quiet little street on a cool autumn day in 1982.  I was not yet thirty years old. I had been getting up wood for the winter and was resting on the deck of our small house looking out over the river. He walked erect with his shoulders squared back and his chest thrust out before him. He was dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a denim jacket. It could have been James Dean. It could have been Eddie Haskell. He was a little of both. He reached out a lanky arm to shake my hand and introduced himself. We had never met but I knew who he was and I admired him and I was flattered that he had purposely sought me out but, in the first moments of this initial encounter, a sense of skepticism fell over me. I felt like he was going to sell me something.

And he did.

He was recruiting musicians and writers and performers of all ilk and anyone else who would sit still for his pitch.  We would create a revival movement in which the joined artisanal forces would travel the length of the Mississippi River--in any manner of floating conveyances--organizing river clean-ups and community festivals to celebrate past and present cultures of the river and to bring focus on the environmental hazards that needed to be confronted. At this point I thought he was crazy. And it turns out he was. But I signed on anyway and for the next year he and I and hundreds of others did exactly that. 

In the course of that year and the thirty four that have followed Larry and I have remained fast and loyal friends. I have collaborated with him on many projects both personal and professional. We have shared stages and ideas. We have tested newly-written songs on one another. I have watched him marry his wife, Jacqueline, and seen the two of them raise their children. I have chronicled his work with elders and children,  and observed proudly as he has accepted awards for his humanitarian efforts. I have sat with him around kitchen tables, campfires, and on bar stools. We have fished from the same boat. I was with him making prayer ties on the night he buried his dog in a miserable steady rainfall.

I offer the above information, in part, to establish the fact that Larry Long is one of my dearest friends but also to make it clear that it is not possible for me to write an objective review of Dove With Claws.  I simply want to offer my personal response to his latest recorded work.

Now, with my biases declared, I begin:

One of the greatest joys of aging is watching people get better and better at what they do. Larry Long is a troubadour in the classic sense and he is one of our very best. The impression of a wandering musician who casually improvises songs to regale the uninformed masses is a false one. Larry is a trained artist, even if mostly self-trained.  He has been mentored by other great artists whose mention here would be impressive but little more than name-dropping. He has been at it for over forty years and his work speaks for itself. Like the troubadours of old his songs are meticulously crafted and while clearly intended to woo and please his audiences they are, above all, potent and convincing. 

Most people who will buy a Larry Long record already own a Larry Long record and think they know what it's going to be like before they play it. They will be right in many ways.  

In Dove With Claws Larry has rounded up the usual suspects with which he peoples all of his work: the indigenous, laborers, farmers, lovers, strugglers, jugglers, outlaws, and scofflaws. Like all good writers, he adds a little of himself to each song. His songs explore the same themes as they always have. What is the source of courage? Of justice? Of freedom? Of grief? Of redemption? 

Also in keeping with the usual nature of his art, Larry relies only sparingly on metaphor. Lyrically, he uncovers his ideas with the use of literal narratives of lived experience. In so doing he evokes imagery beyond the story he is telling. In Lay Hatred Down, a celestial paean to honor the unjustly imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier, one can easily envision Martin Luther King writing his Letter From Birmingham Jail. 

Most of the songs in this collection will justify the faith of Larry's followers in his mastery of creating ethereal melodies delivered with a voice somehow incongruently powerful in contrast to their delicacy.  None more so than Walkin' Like Rain, a haunting introspective musing on friendship, loss, and resurrection.  The beauty and elegance of Circle Time and Joshua Tree will also strengthen that faith.

So now that you think you're ready for a nice taste of the Larry Long we all know and love, I implore you, think again. There is a delightful surprise awaiting.

Enter Melvin James.

Nearly fifty years ago the first leg of Long's adult journey took him from his childhood home in Minnesota to his mother's ancestral home in Iowa. While visiting his uncle's family there he couldn't possibly have known the indelible influence his first songs would make on his eleven-year-old cousin, Melvin, whose passion was immediately and evermore directed to the guitar and the music he, too, would come to create.  

Melvin James went on to achieve outstanding successes as a charted artist with MCA Records in the 80's, for a time holding a number one position with video renditions of his pop/rock performances on MTV. With his son, the drummer Melvin Veach III, he produced acclaimed work as Planet Melvin that included scores for major films and some great records with Crash Street Kids, all new to me but work I am quickly coming to love and admire.

While I've known Larry for a long time I only caught up with Mel recently when I joined them at a rehearsal for an upcoming performance to celebrate Larry's 65th birthday and the release of this record.

In Minneapolis, by the river, in a warehouse converted into dank, dingy 12' by 12' rehearsal studio spaces Larry and Mel demonstrate that the intensity and passion they share for the music they make is a product of their shared DNA.  It is Melvin's soulful pop sensibility and his virtuoso rock and roll guitar work that amplifies not just Larry's melodies but the urgency of the messages carried within them. 

Larry begins with a soft, steady shoomp-shoomp-shoomp of the acoustic guitar to start out Old Ways, a song he wrote with kids at an American Indian Movement-Heart of the Earth Survival School. The song emphasizes the value of cultural traditions as a source of strength.  Mel straps on a Gibson guitar that I think is an SG but is, in fact, a very early vintage Les Paul that has apparently been around the world and back a few times. He wears it so the strings are just below his waste. The song builds to a lyrical passage "Can't think to contain my rage, like a wolf in a cage" and Larry's voice and Mel's guitar howl accordingly.  

Larry has written great songs for a long time and Melvin told me that even as he was making his way along a divergent musical path he was always paying attention to what Larry was doing and felt an intimate connection to his songs. He knew they would eventually work together.

It wasn't anything sudden. They started laying down tracks for this project a long time ago. They would archive the work and drift away from it for long periods of time. Gradually, as both were honing their separate skills, the project came into focus. Bass player, Sid Gasner, in the interim left playing music behind him. When it became clear that the project would at last take shape he rejoined the circle. According to Larry and Mel, this is some of Sid's best work ever.

In 1987 women laundry workers went on strike against American Linen Supply Company in Hibbing, Minnesota when their male co-workers would not. The strike lasted through four years of  extreme Iron Range climate. Along with his friend, the late Paul Wellstone, who would later become U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Larry went there to sing on the picket line where he wrote Seven Strong Women for the eventually-victorious strikers.

To me, Seven Strong Women exemplifies one of my favorite aspects of Larry's work and its inclusion on this record is a pleasant surprise. It is emotional without being sentimental. It tackles the immense concept of courageous struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds. But the song is not unnecessarily big or anthemic or war-like. In the rehearsal and on the record it comes at you like a quick, blinding punch-in-the-nose attack on injustice, a simple, raucous ruckus to honor the people with the courage to fight.  Larry and his cousin and their collective musical fervor produce a remarkable synergy, as if Woody Guthrie had been backed up by the Ramones.

Likewise on All Across America. If the objective of the recording artist is to capture your attention with the opening song then Larry has succeeded by delivering a surprising jolt to his repeat customers. All Across America practically explodes from your speakers.  Anchored by Melvin III's pounding drumbeat, Sid's bass foundation, and Mel's strident power saw guitar licks Larry's quasi-comical take on the adolescent confusion of love and promiscuity will make you remember what it was like to be twenty years old again. Whether you like it or not. The personal is universal. And vice versa.

In Mississippi Levee, Larry offers a spirited history lesson about forced labor with a cajun rhythm that drives as hard as any nine-pound hammer, the words and music crafted so exactly that you can feel the muscles and heart of the song's protagonist straining as though they were your own. 

My favorite song on the record (right now, at least) is one that goes way back. Living in a Rich Man's World was the title song of Larry's first record made way back in the olden times of vinyl and dollar-a-pack cigarettes. This new version of one of the songs that put Larry on the radar so many years ago serves to show, as the late, great producer and songwriter Jack Clements told any young songwriter who would listen, "A good song gets better with age." 

Most of you who know Larry's work know the song so I won't say much about it. Sadly, it's not only better with age; it's also more pertinent.  You can see and hear for yourself here: 

I used to think that Larry, in witnessing people's struggles and reflecting their stories back to them in his songs, was serving others by helping them find the courage they need to go on. As I listen to Dove With Claws I wonder if it isn't more than that--that giving witness to the struggles of the people he is drawn to is the source of his own courage.

Larry's songwriting and performance skill is not a gift. It is a talent he has developed over a lifetime. In Dove With Claws he has painted a gritty, lusty American panorama. He has distilled the great themes of the history of a nation with compact emotional precision. Working with Melvin James has taken his work to a higher level and a place where it belongs. 

Larry Long is one of my favorite songwriters. He is a master of performance and stagecraft. He is a husband, father, friend and elder in the community he has worked to build and continues to nurture. He is a great musician. He has earned a good living with his talents but he's never been a part of the music business. I like to think Larry has had the good fortune of never getting the commercial success and fame he is worthy of.

Still, he has many, many friends and fans all around the world he has traveled so fearlessly and relentlessly. With this new record he will add many more.

Dove With Claws The Melvin James Sessions is a sumptuous feast but it's not comfort food. Dish it up. You'll be glad you did.