Dan Israel Lives On: Yesterday and Today!
“Human resilience is a big theme in my writing, for sure – I write about the struggle – my struggle, others’ struggles, not to be too depressing, but let’s face it, it ain’t easy to make it through in this world sometimes…”
Twenty-two years and twelve albums into an acclaimed career that spans two decades, Minnesota’s other notable folk rock bard, Dan Israel, emerges with two extraordinary releases; one that exists in the here and now, and another which traces his storied history as a singer, songwriter, and recording artist.
Today: Israel’s latest collection of songs, aptly titled Live On is a stark, cinematic aural chronicle of the times we all live in: especially those of us of a certain age (i.e. old enough to remember Paul Wellstone and Hubert Humphrey). With producer / multi-instrumentalist Rich Mattson by his side, Israel has come “full circle.” Mattson, who produced Israel’s debut seventeen years ago, brought his old friend to an abandoned church in Sparta – a town not far from where the singer’s mother was born and which is among the several small cities which make up the rural Iron Range. “I’ve never really spent a lot of time up there, but knowing my mom’s hometown was five minutes away was a constant reminder of my own ‘ancestral origins.’ (Israel also notes “…in case you’re wondering, yes, my mom did meet a young Bobby Zimmerman, as there weren’t that many Jewish families on the Range in the 1950s…”).
Israel’s yin (“I’m pretty outspoken and sometimes over-reactive…”) and Mattson’s yang (“Rich is a little more low-key…he has such a good ear and came up with tons of great guitar and bass parts and played them better than I ever could…) throughout Live On make for subtle swinging grooves, clever counterpoint, and lyrics that will replay in your mind over and over. Props to drummer David J. Russ who stays in the pocket from start to finish.
Among the standout tracks embedded in Live On is the Tom Petty inspired “Ain’t Gonna Let The World” which is a kissing cousin to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer’s classic “I Won’t Back Down.” Alt-rock aficionados will certainly pay heed to Israel’s heartfelt paean to the cut which honors the equally resilient Slim Dunlap, late of one of Minnesota’s most legendary and influential rock ensembles – The Replacements. “Mile After Mile” resonates with John Schjolberg’s weeping pedal steel guitar weaving in and out of Israel’s somber melodies. However don’t let the dirge-like motifs fool you – this is a song of hope.
“I’ve known Slim for a number of years. We played some shows together … he was always so incredibly nice to me and funny, always cracking jokes. When he had his stroke, I started to go visit him alot. I think I came up with basics of ‘Mile After Mile’ right after I saw him in the hospital early on after the stroke. But then it took on greater meaning for me because last summer, for awhile, he was in a hospital two blocks from my work. So, on many lunch breaks, I’d go over and hang out with Slim and try to brighten his day a little and I got to hear so many unreal stories – except they’re real! I’m proud to know Slim, and hope he can continue to recover from this very difficult curveball life has thrown at him. I love the guy.” Aside from the Slim tribute, Israel pays homage to the mighty Mats in “Won’t Have to Wait” – a track worthy of Tim which benefits greatly from the guest lead guitar of Jeremy Ylvisaker.
And yes, you can judge a record by its cover: the entrancing artwork which adorns Live On was rendered by the late Leah Rule, who along with her husband Rob, ran the famed Turf Club in St. Paul. Israel first saw the image at Rule’s memorial service. “Leah was one of the most beloved people in the Twin Cities music scene…” recalls Israel. “The Rules poured their hearts and souls in to the Turf Club… she was an artist had this great comic book – ‘zine called Rural Fox that I really got into. I decided this picture of a tree that Leah had drawn would be perfect for the album cover, with all the layered meanings of the term ‘live on.’ For her, I was saying, her spirit lives on, for people like Slim Dunlap, I was saying he will survive and get through this, and that’s also what I’m saying to myself, as I’ve been in the midst of my own pretty severe health crisis the last few months.”
Yesterday: Which brings us to the even more aptly entitled Danthology – a limited edition, career spanning vinyl only collection which distills twenty five songs from twelve albums. “I’d actually been wanting to do two things for years – make a “best of,” even though, as my 7-year-old son points out, I don’t really have any ‘hits’- and put something out on vinyl. When I did a Kickstarter campaign for Live On, the response was incredible and I ended up with a little more in the fund than I thought I would get, so I decided to put out a 2-LP vinyl best of compilation.
What did Dan Israel see in his personal rear view mirror? “I learned that I’m crazy! No, seriously, kind of. You look back at the things that troubled you and you wrote about earlier and you’re like ‘why did I ever get so upset about that’ – but at the time, it mattered, obviously.”
And the fact that Israel’s life work is available on two black slabs of 33 1/3 RPM polyvinyl chloride makes it all the more romantic. “It sounds so good….I grew up listening to records, then I got away from it for a number of years, but every time I go back and listen to vinyl, it blows me away – you can just feel it more. It’s transcendent, and the range of sound is so vast. I’m glad it’s coming back, too. I don’t even own an Mp3 player!”
You can stream Live On here: