From the moment you lay eyes on the reverse-Norman-Rockwell cover to this mellowly beautiful but surprisingly dark CD, you know you're in for a quiet storm. Pictured is a semi-Feinengeresque snapshot of a white teenaged boy looking through the window of an amber-lit storefront while holding hands with his black girlfriend. The atmosphere is of the 50s, as the car in the parking lot evinces, and the contrast of an ambient b&w background against foreground hues, both assuring and vaguely unsettling. So is this entire CD.
I reviewed Wates' debut disc (here) and found it to be searingly affective, a masterpiece the times have yet to catch up to. Joe's Cafe is a striking departure from Dear Life's format and tenor, though not an inch removed from his rivetingly moving sentiments and insights. Rather than re-invest his own marvelous singing voice, he this time acts as MC for a posited stage show featuring a revolving cast of striking vocalists. Wates opens and closes the show, and, indeed, the cycle was performed as a sonic play at the Metropolitan Room in New York, then bows out as singer after glowing singer walks on. Joining the instrumentation again is the sterling Michael Manring, this time companioned by an old Windham Hill labelmate, Darol Anger on violin. Appropriately enough, much of Wates' guitar work through the 15 songs is reminiscent of Alex DeGrassi (another legend in the old Windham team) in modally shifting complexity.
Be prepared to shed a tear or two. Wates doesn't withhold his powers as a poet, tearing through the veneer of consensus reality to bring listeners the raw truth of the human condition. When Ashley Gonzalez encants The Skies of South Dakota in a moving Baez-ish near-a-cappella reminiscent of a toned-down Joe Hill, the ear is entranced by the purity and control of the chanteuse. Then the lyrics become clear, an exercise in the outfall of the class war, in which an envied rich girl who one day disappeared later is found as a farmer plows his fields:
And I whisper each time I repeat this,
The drift of events, in five stanzas of progressively understood import, slowly dawns on the listener as a chill creeps up the spine. More than one cut here echoes that unhedging perspective. Even the tribute to the late George Carlin, Stand Up Comedians, is startlingly honest in its ambivalent but affectionate appraisal of the gruff gravel-voiced malcontent. As unsentimental as George himself was, I can, somewhere in the Great Beyond, hear that glorious Irish bastard lifting a stein with Jimi, Janis, Lenny, and various outcast others as he catches this cut wafting through the veils, exclaiming "Goddammit!, there's a man after my own heart!"
Joe's Cafe swings, ponders, rambles, and scoots a boot or two across a gin-stained dance floor, but mainly it burrows deeply into heart and mind. This play of seemingly innocent musics with stark reality is something not often attempted in popular music, more a staple of the literary venues. Expect to recall your high school readings of Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Oates & O'Connor (if you had a teacher that hip), even Nathaniel West as you sink into the groundlevel splendor of this unusual release. A buddy who came in through the back door while I was listening to it, writing up this critique, commented "Hey, that's some fine music! Who is it?" I replied "Listen to the lyrics a moment". He did so, eyes suddenly widening, and whispered, "Holy Christ!". It's that kind of CD.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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