CD Review – Jon Vezner “Catz Of The Colosseum”
My first exposure to singer-songwriters Jon Vezner and Don Henry was when I came upon a Kathy Mattea album called “A Collection of Hits.”
At the time, I wasn’t familiar with Ms. Mattea’s music but she was always a curiosity. She just appeared on her albums as a little more than just another female country singer. Even the album art suggested something was going on. She seemed to be from that “family” of female vocalists like Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris. Only I didn’t know her yet. She didn’t look traditional country, outlaw or pop-country. Kathy just appeared as an original and on this greatest hits collection leaning back comfortably and cool – this would be the time to get to know her.
Everything on the collection was good, but the last song was intense: “Where’ve You Been” — a song with subject-matter that just wasn’t the standard fare. It wasn’t about young lovers, beer drinking, driving a Ford Pickup or honky-tonks. It was about an elderly couple. The tale just unraveled as a poignant story that could easily be applied to any couple who has lived with each other for decades and had a very strong bond. That kind of song doesn’t need to be a hit – it’s just so good that people who hear it will simply adopt it for themselves and it will gain momentum in a special way.
But, I was wrong. It was a top ten hit on the country charts in 1989 and won a Grammy Award. The song of Edwin and Claire over the years has become that special song that knows how to coax a tear from an eye.
That’s great songwriting. That’s a great song.
Fast forward to 2012 and one of the songwriters of this great song – Jon Vezner – has a fine solo collection. Vezner, Kathy Mattea’s husband, has been writing sensitive songs for years and has a wealth of artists who depend on his reliable and dependable talent. As good as “Where’ve You Been,” was in 1989 – it was just the tip of the iceberg.
Catz of the Colosseum is Jon’s newest solo CD and it’s a surprising mix.
The opening witty title track is framed by Pat Bergeson’s melodic harmonicas, some finger popping, Pat Wictor’s dobro all rooted cleverly in a jazz groove. K.C. Clifford offers some savvy female background vocals to accentuate just below the surface of guitars. A heavy bass and playful piano swerve together in and out of the traffic of this catchy melody.
If it’s a marriage of country style vocals, front porch dobro and cool jazz – it works beyond anyone’s imagination. More of this kind of country music and no one can call country a music for hicks and not for cool cats.
This is cool for any cat.
Hole In My Reality is a charmer. This time the band Disappear Fear’s SONiA is the female vocal gracing Vezner’s confident words. Lewis Alan Gelfond provides a vivid violin and the music is full and potent. Vezner’s gift for a delicious melody is evident here. If you listen carefully, it’s Vezner’s own piano notes that slide through the tune with finesse.
Emily Ever After brings Jon together with Kathy Mattea in a gentle ballad with a sad Pat Bergeson harmonica. The sensitive musicianship may be a little off-putting to ears trained to hear tunes follow a standard route — but the melody is actually sturdy, with intricate acoustic guitar that never intrudes on the poignant lyrics Jon sings. It’s just a little more of a complicated type song. Elvis Presley’s recording of Eddie Rabbit and Dick Heard’s “Kentucky Rain,” was similar in approach. Not an easy song to sing or perform with time signatures changing as they did. For some it’s unorthodox but these songs are actually good solid examples of fine songwriting that is above what the average singer-songwriter wannabe would produce.
Why Walk When You Can Dance is another song that may have been seeded in the same soil as “Where’ve You Been.” Songwriters have a tendency to apply their creativity to real life circumstances. Maybe it’s a method of therapy, a way of dealing with sadness or conjuring some happiness from a deeper well. I happen to be in a similar situation now with my father and this song was easy to relate to. Jon manages to squeeze a little optimism out of what is essentially a sad song – but, his voice elevates it to a level where the song gives the listener hope no matter what the outcome.
Outside Her Window is another carefully shaped song from the songbook of a man who knows how to sketch tales that affect everyone sooner or later. I knew someone similar to the person in this lyric and the Carl Marsh strings beautifully rendered add to the desolation and loneliness that punctuates the melody. Jon Vezner possesses a place in songwriting similar to John Prine.
Where Prine is a little more sarcastic, humorous and sometimes reveals a world of imperfect people – Jon Vezner focuses on people who aren’t so much broken as lonely, reflective, facing unknown realities, dealing with the business of living and accepting the cards they are dealt with – but, in a poignant manner.
These are the people who live next door, who used to give you a birthday present when they really couldn’t afford it, who gave you some dinner when they didn’t have much to eat themselves, who loved each other unquestionably but have seldom held hands in public, who never challenged their faith. These are the people who live behind the curtains on the second floor, they are the Boo Radleys of everyday life.
And they can be found in a Jon Vezner song if you take the time to look and listen – and that can be a very rewarding place because we all know someone like this.
Bluebird continues my comparison of Jon Vezner with John Prine.
I don’t believe Prine would write a song like this but it has that “feel.” The style is so well developed by Jon Vezner that it’s become his signature. If Prine and Vezner were brothers Vezner would be the compassionate brother while Prine would be the guy to go to for hammering Lionel Trains to the dining room table at Christmas (as Prine once hilariously described after a divorce).
Vezner’s voice is sincere and he hits higher notes with a friendlier melody that even children would enjoy singing along with. Co-written with Si Kahn – this tune is like vanilla ice cream dipped in chocolate that hardens on the cone. It’s unforgettable in that way and it tastes so good in the ears.
I’ve Got An App For That is a little more novelty-oriented. Almost a style that is generally ignored today. Seems many singer-songwriters don’t have the ability to be humorous. Thankfully Jon Vezner has a sense of humor.
Bob Dylan showed a little humor recently when he recorded a Christmas album with some genuinely funny songs. I think it takes talent with a little bravery to write some great tunes and then share it with the world. But, to write something jaunty, humorous and straddling the fence of a novelty song – that’s courageous. Of course, it helps when the musicianship is sparkling. This has great playing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zkf1mbvxnA
We Will Be Alright brings something a little eccentric. Co-written by Pat Pattison it has some very Beatle-esque strings and horn sounding effects drifting around. Playfully melodic, this tune is consistent and it reminds me of “Cold In California” by Allison Moorer — which had that late-career George Martin – Beatles feel in its musical approach as well.
This is a fun listen and goes on replay immediately. It seemed a little out of character at first but upon multiple listens — it’s all appropriate. Paul McCartney would be comfortable playing along on a track such as this.
Old Birnam Oak was a pleasant surprise because I am a big fan of singer-songwriter Clive Gregson — his solo work and early band Any Trouble. Gregson is a protégé of guitar-whiz singer-songwriter Richard Thompson. But, this tune is brilliantly sewn together with a respectable Clive Gregson feel. Jon Vezner’s vocals are so pure and relaxing throughout and quite different from his other vocals on previous songs. Whether Jon did this conciously or not doesn’t matter. I’m impressed with his diversity here.
This is the kind of song that when back-up singer, the great Janis Ian mirrors Jon’s vocals as it does on “Old Birnam Oak” — any type of blues or anxiety a listener may have will just drift away like smoke.
It’s the perfect prescription for someone who needs a song to remind them they are not alone. This is a beautiful song – this is just waiting for a June Tabor, Christine Collister or Christine McVie to cover…or even Janis herself. Vezner, of course, has the definitive version already but this is a song that must be heard. The strings don’t hold the song together like glue — they hold the song together like the fine thread of Japanese book binding. If you have ever seen that — you will know what I mean. Intricate, delicate, artistic, yet strong.
One Match Fire changes lanes and shows the ease at which Jon can write and perform. This song is also reminiscent of Clive Gregson but there are little sparks (no pun intended) in this melody that are solely the imprint of Jon Vezner. When the song adds the piano, the background vocals and the other musicians begin to build on the melody it just drizzles with that herbal tea and whiskey flavor. It has the sound of a real crackling fire to warm the ears, suggest the wondorous scent of burning wood in winter and it all personalizes the performance. It makes it sound like Jon is sitting in front singing –and just to you. The last notes of the piano in this song are quite memorable.
Your Love Reaches Me is an excellent closer to a fine album. A song that seems to bring everything full circle. I don’t always enjoy every single track on a solo album and I do have favorites on this album that will be on replay. But, I try to single out the tracks I know another singer would find gold in. This album has that treasure chest. Several of these songs for the right vocalist will be magic. This is the kind of song that is memorable in the way that Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling In Love,” was. Maybe I am thinking of that song specifically because of how a band called Lick the Tins had re-arranged it several years ago and made the song sound like an old traditional Celtic tune with the pennywhistle. It was brilliant. This song too — is that memorable. It’s a good closer and one to say goodnight with.
I have gotten into debates with people who say singers who can’t write their own songs aren’t talented. That’s just not the case. If so, then we would have to dismiss Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Tom Jones and many, many others who were not known as songwriters — but, were song stylists. Not to mention — Elvis Presley who would have found many of Jon Vezner’s songs worthy of covering had he been made aware of a Jon Vezner.
In the meantime, there are singer-songwriters like Jon who write songs of considerable merit and they are needed in this business. Too many singers usually write the same song over and over again – if they do indeed “write.” It is not an easy chore. It’s something taken for granted the same way photographers take lighting for granted. Two different animals. Both should be studied seriously if you want good results. Songwriting? Not everyone has that kind of talent, originality, creativity and resource of a watchful eye and ear — even if they play an instrument.
It takes a rare, sharp talent to be able to write something consistently original – words and music.
Sometimes listening to a Jon Vezner is where those jewels can be found. It never ceases to amaze me how some writers are so incredibly resourceful and provide consistently good material year after year of such high caliber: Tom Waits, Randy Newman, the late Harry Nilsson, John Prine, John Haitt, Van Morrison, Patti Smith, the late Townes Van Zandt, the late Judee Sill, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Carole King, Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Shane McGowan and of course, we all know Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.
They all started as respectable singer-songwriters and they were able to carve out a style that is beloved today by their fans, admirers and other artists. There are many others I could mention and Jon Vezner – well, he has a place among these fine people and he most certainly deserves it.
This album was Produced by Jon Vezner who also thanked his wife Kathy Mattea for being such a good sport when musicians were tramping through their house at all hours of the night. We should give thanks as well – the final product was worth waiting for. Thanks Kathy.
For more information about CDs and up-coming shows look at: http://www.jonvezner.com/
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression.
John Apice – Contributing Writer – No Depression / February 19th 2013