Sunday, December 2, 2018

Jonathon Long - The Long And The Short Of It

Let’s face it, this album from Louisiana’s Jonathon Long is going to get attention because it represents the first bash at producing by the increasingly popular Samantha Fish, whether listeners know much about the Long fella or not.  And it would be easy to assume that because it’s self-titled, it’s Long’s debut recording.  Easy, but wrong.
The thing is, Jonathan Long is undergoing a kind of metamorphosis, because he’s had two previous albums, under the moniker Jonathon ‘Boogie’ Long - 2012’s  Jonathon Boogie Long & The Blues Revolution, and in 2016 Trying To Get There.  And the new outing marks an evolution in his sound, focusing a bit more on the Americana leanings that were evident on a few songs on his earlier releases.
"So you discovered my alter ego, huh?"
As Long himself puts it, "There was a time I played a lot of shuffles, but now I'm in a different blues genre,  I've been Boogie since two years old, and now it's time to be just Jonathon Long."
Those two earlier albums must be pretty duff then eh?  Wrong again.  To these ears they stand up really well beside his latest effort.  So this piece isn't just a review of the new album, though we'll get to that in a minute. It's more of a general introduction to Jonathon Long for the uninitiated - of whom I was one until recently.
Let's start with the fact that that he's been in the game since he was a kid.  According to an article on a website from his home town of Baton Rouge, Long quit high school in 2003, aged just 14, to go out on the road as a bass player with a band - his parents having to grant partial custody to the band leader to allow Long to travel across the state line.
All growed up now, he's a burly looking guy who would look right at home in a classic Southern rock band - or maybe showing up at the CMA Awards.  And with his Louisiana accent his voice is a natural for songs on the new album like 'Shine Your Love' and 'The Light', that lean in the rootsy direction of, say, Chris Stapleton or Patrick Sweaney.
The former opens with sparse strummed guitar and light, sensitive vocals, before picking up a head of steam topped off with one of Long's typically impressive guitar solos.  The latter features a keening vocal over a train-like rhythm, with twinkling guitar in the background, and a different style of solo in which he plays off against the fiddle playing from Michael Harvey which decorates the track throughout.  Meanwhile 'The River', on which Long duets with his producer Sam Fish, is a spacious, dramatic slowie garnished with slide guitar, that builds to a crescendo over which Fish sprinkles her own brand of vocal stardust.
Across 11 tracks occupying just 38 minutes, Long still manages to pack in plenty of great guitar work across a range of material, whether it’s the shimmering effort that tops off the staccato riff and big chorus of opener ‘Bury Me’, or the elegant solo that colours ‘That’s When I Know’, with its strong melody, four-on-the-floor strut, and deep bass from Chris Roberts.  (Fish contributes guitar to both of these, by the way, which I reckon accounts for the intriguing array of buzzing, humming, squiggling background noises filling out the sound on them.)  And on the closing ‘Pray For Me’, the bluesiest outing here, a tough, ringing riff and stomping rhythm section lay the foundations for a punchy solo that I’d bet Long will dial up even more live.
It’s not all about the guitar though, because as a songwriter Long likes to explore different styles. There’s a country rock vibe to both ‘Living The Blues’ and ‘Natural Girl’, the former a stinging reflection on financial hardship, and the latter a breezy affair powered by crunching guitar chords, featurin a high-revving belter of a solo from Long, swirls of organ, and beefy drums from Julian Civello, all in the service of describing the kind of girl who probably drives a flatbed Ford in Winslow, Arizona. ‘This Road’ is more of a Southern rock thang, with a solid riff, a slide solo and expansive drums – and room to grow live, I’m thinking.
More daringly, there’s room for the boozily humorous ‘Pour Another Drink’, with barroom piano from an anonymous keys contributor, and the warm jazziness of ‘Where Love Went Wrong’, which is rhythmically subtle and shows off warm guitar tones on a solo played over acoustic strumming.
There’s no denying the quality of these songs, or Long’s quality as a guitarist.  And Sam Fish, together with recording engineer Michael Harvey, also deserves credit for a strong, clear sound on her first outing at the helm.
Revolution come, revolution go
I must admit though, I miss the warm funkiness evident some of the time on Long’s earlier albums. Don’t get me wrong, there was still variety in his material back then, but there was a backdrop of those blues shuffles referred to earlier. As he said in an interview with Country Roads magazine back in 2012, "When you come to see me live, expect blues-rock, face-melting.  When you listen to my music from the studio, you're hearing me as a singer-songwriter."
I dare say he's toned down the face-melting since then, but the opening track of that debut album, 'Bad Day', is a good example of what Long had going in the studio, with strutting chords heralding a first sizzling solo on an unhurried affair, his vocals a languid drawl over a laid back, shuffling rhythm.  At the other end of the the album, closer 'Mr Mister' has busy drums from Terrance Houston and rumbling, jazzy bass from Zachary Matchett, allowing Long the freedom to chuck handfuls of sparkling guitar over the top, before closing out with a chunky riff.
There are Southern rock stylings to both 'Do Right Woman' and the fun 'Goin' Somewhere', the latter featuring plenty of guitar embroidery, building up to some extremely nimble-fingered fretwork on the solo itself.  Contrastingly, his reading of 'Catfish Blues' is slow, relaxed and subtle, with good phrasing and dynamics in his vocal.  'Lonesome Road', on the other hand, foreshadows the Americana aspects of the new album.
Long's songwriting range is most evident though, on the wit and imagination of 'Floating With My Baby'.  Honest to god, this could be a song from some movie musical ready to be turned into a standard by Frank Sinatra - except delivered by a grooving blues band.  Long's guitar is jazzy, Houston's drums swing along behind the beat, and there are great bass lines from Matchett.  And these are some of the characteristics that make Long's earlier stuff different - a liking for swing and syncopation, allied to Long occasionally singing in a lower, more relaxed pitch.
What you also get from Long across all three albums is the ability to pack a lot of content into relatively short songs, while keeping them coherent.  So on the two and a half minute title track of Trying To Get There, fired by a stop-time riff, he drops in a neat middle eight that creates extra dynamics, done with ease and no fuss.  There are some more of those country-ish tracks too, with 'Crescent City Girl' a forerunner of 'Natural Girl' on the new album - maybe a bit by-the-numbers, but with a strong chorus and a nice ending on which Chris Roberts' bass is a good foil for Long.  'Go Out And Get It', meanwhile is a slow-ish number with country-style lyrics, kept simple but musically amusing,  with offbeat drums from Jay Carnegie this time, and Long's guitar tracking the vocal melody here and there.
A bit of face-melting, perhaps?
On the other hand, 'Call The Preacher' is essentially straight ahead R'n'B, but Long's soloing fireworks go fine until he goes a bit large on a trilling guitar trick that crops up a little too often - and if I do have a criticism of these earlier albums, it's that here and there - not often - Long overplays a bit.
'I'm A Fool' is one such instance, but I'll forgive him because otherwise it's a classy soul ballad with a good melody, well sung and with a burst of should falsetto along the way.
So here's the point.  Jonathon Long's new album may represent a sharpening of focus, but it's not a one-trick stylistic pony.  And beyond that, his earlier recordings suggest still more strings to his bow, as both a songwriter and a player.  Hell, his Facebook page lists influences as broad as Joe Bonamassa, Steve Vai, Robben Ford, Eric Gales, Jill Scott, Stevie Wonder and Rascal Flatts.  I'd wager that he can draw on all of that range to put on a live show that can turn a few heads.  He's touring in the States just now as support to Samantha Fish - so when's he coming this side of the pond, so we can see if I'm right?

Jonathon Long is available on Wild Heart Records.

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