When I was a kid, I could switch on WABC in New York or WPGC in DC and hear Bill Withers, The Rolling Stones, Roberta Flack and Edgar Winter back to back to back to back – and it informed my musical scope and knowledge. These days, the only way I can recreate that is by paying for Sirius/XM 70s, while suffering scorn at the hand of my family and friends.
In this day and age, it is one thing to admit a fondness for 60s and 70s (blue-eyed) soul infused rock – it takes a cast iron set of stones to actually record and perform it. Danny Chaimson hails from Chicago, a town that has of course produced its share of formidable blues and R&B. On Young Blood, Old Soul, he and his crack band the 11th Hour do more than just carry the torch – they damn near burn the house down.
In just the first few notes of ‘Sittin by the Bayou’, a torrent of influences is unleashed, as strong and lethal as the song’s still resonant subject – Hurricane Katrina. The specters of Little Feat and Dr. John cohabitate with those of Steely Dan and Randy Newman – without discordance or gratuitousness. The groove – thick and lumpy like long simmering gumbo – is accented tastefully by Chaimson’s icy hot Fender Rhodes, and when the organ, angelic choir and Chaimson’s rubbery, twangy vocal are all thrown in the pot, somehow the past, present and future of soul music are all evoked simultaneously.
While ‘Bayou’ lurches from the gate, the sprightly ‘Bobblehead Girl’ takes the baton and gallops. Against a ‘Hey Pocky Way’-style beat, Chaimson chastises his promiscuous anti-heroine but maintains a level of sympathy, even dignity (“She had shoes on her feet” – nice touch). The catchy chorus – sung over more keyboard gymnastics – should be permeating the cultural landscape in a few months. It would certainly be a welcome change from ‘Pokerface’.
‘Bobblehead’ serves as an intro of sorts to the broader social commentary of ‘L.A., L.A.’, which again conjures up the cynicism of Little Criminals era Randy Newman, with one of the cleverest chorus couplets to come down the pike in a long while: “Are your mountains made of bullshit too / Are your oceans just the devil’s drool / Keepin’ us cool.” Nicely done, sir.
Despite the fact that Chaimson – a piano prodigy at 4 who started writing his own tunes at 10 – may not ultimately qualify, he is part of that infamous generation that will not do as well as the previous one. He laments that prospect on what might be the set’s standout track, ‘This is Life’. Drawing on latter era Sly Stone (the under-appreciated ‘Time for Livin’ comes to mind), Chaimson more than replicates the rotating, grinding toughness of that and other tracks, facilitated ably by guitarist Sergio Rios.
The lines between blues, rock and soul are blurred on such hard-jamming tracks as ‘Speed’, ‘I Guess You Met my Baby’ and ‘Charlie Goodtimes’ – possibly the best late night headphone tune since Frampton’s ‘Do You Feel Like We Do’. With some artists, this might represent a confusion of purpose – with no originality to draw on, might as well kitchen sink it. But in the case of Chaimson and the 11th Hour, it is more a matter of ‘let me show you how I can make my favorite things my own – and you won’t even know they’re someone else’s.’
Chaimson scatters a few more of his favorite things around in the remaining tracks – a little bit of the Beatles’ “I Dig a Pony” in ‘Down the Line’; a lot of the Dan’s “Black Cow” in the herky jerky ‘Old Friends’; a dollop of “Tupelo Honey” in the auto-biographical ‘Cold Night in Chicago’. These are just the things I hear – everyone will rejoice is hearing something both familiar and revelatory in all of the tracks.
But while ‘This is Life’ is the hit, the collection’s tour de force is, appropriately, the closer: the epic, life affirming, pub closing ‘Raise ’Em Up’. With its gospel sensibilities, stout horns and shimmering keyboards, the tune provides that heartwarming yet melancholy moment when the most fun time in the world inevitably has to end. It reminds me of those rare times on TV when you actually get to hear the original closing theme from ‘Saturday Night Live’ – in all its boozy, bluesy, 1979 glory. Luckily for us, Chaimson and his band are with us in 2009 and you can simply play the CD all over again. As the title indicates, Chaimson is that new friend you could swear you’ve known all your life – and his music feels that way too.