Joe West & The Santa Fe Revue: Blood Red Velvet
After a string of knock-out records ten years or so ago, I haven’t heard too much from Santa Fe’s Frogville Records in recent times. And then, out of the blue, here comes what is possibly the best record yet on that label. In that golden period Joe West was maybe the cream of the cream on their roster and in his current role as M C of The Santa Fe Revue he has come up with an album that epitomises everything that has been so good about him over the years. As the band name suggests, this is something of a variety show with Joe passing lead vocal duties to his bandmates on occasion and giving us some stories featuring people from outside the core band, a tall story or two, a couple of covers and enough changes of mood to take you on a substantial tour of the further reaches of Joe West’s imagination. Well, I say imagination but one of Joe West’s trademarks over the years has been his knack of highlighting the wonderful individuality, eccentricity even, of ordinary folks. He just delights in celebrating the people and stuff he finds around him from day to day and, in doing so, seems to communicate a compassionate sense of shared humanity.
Opening up with a song that old fans would immediately recognise as Joe West at the top of his game gets you on his side from the off. It’s All Over is about the end of a love affair and evokes the ineffably sad emptiness in a manner that few can match him for. It happens to be a peach of a tune, simple but beautiful and played with the kind of classy musicianship that he always seems to surround himself with. Everything that is great about Joe West is right here in this song, including one element that is the key to the album as a whole – an ability to feel just how much incongruity enhances a piece of art. On this song it’s the crudely bloke-ish backing vocals that pop up toward the end of the song, way off kilter to the heart-wrenching pain Joe has brought to his lead vocal performance and yet, somehow, just right. Within songs and across the album as a whole Joe pulls off this trick time and again, and the whole thing is richer for it. Joe West aficionados will recognise various themes that crop up: art world characters, music scene adventures and his own personal life are all woven in here, whilst the most astonishing track is probably the six minute rambling tale told by Dona Dillenschneider, a scary story of emotions running wild, involving brawling, porn and a gun (you’ve got to listen); as she lets her tale unfold a scary pulse of high piano chords puts the hair up on the back of your neck. And then, of all things, Dona gives us a high drama, smoky voiced chorus of Those Were The Days. Who else would think of sticking all that in the middle of their new record? Well, the great Terry Allen might but I think this tops anything I’ve heard even from him.
It would be exhausting to take you through every nook and cranny of Blood Red Velvet; suffice to say that every track is a cracker, each in its own way. The shambling-but-tight rock vibe that Joe has always done so well is here in abundance but it’s all the unexpected treats that really fire me up about this: Felecia Ford sharing the vocal on Pink Nun is one and Lori Ottino blowing the cobwebs out with a storming vocal on I Got It All is another. Closing out with Warren Zevon’s Don’t Let Us Get Sick is just the icing on the cake. Wonderful, and straight to the top of the pile for 2013 (apologies to all other contenders, previously championed on this page).