My Favorite Music of 2013

jasonisbellThere was a time when I spent hours thinking of clever ways to describe the music of the past year. There’s not much need now. A brief description and a video and you can make up your mind whether my taste has soured or not.

So here’s what I listened to the most this year, a year that I thought was the best for new music in a long, long time.

Jason Isbell – Southeastern. This is the sound of a life falling apart and nearly ending and then trying to figure a way back from the darkness. Isbell’s disc is by far the album I listened to the most this year. “Traveling Alone” is simply stunning. “Stockholm” isn’t exactly subtle, speaking of a man trapped and entranced by his captors, whether people or addictions, looking to go home. “Cover Me Up” is the bluntest of confessions and a statement of resolve. “Elephant” will rip out your heart.

Aoife O’Donovan – Fossils. Languid, mellow and so entrancing. O’Donovan sings beautifully and plays with great taste, but don’t ignore the lyrical depth here. Check out the lyrics on “Beekeeper.”

Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In. This is why algorithms will never replace people. I learned about this album from Barry Friedman at Birdland Records when I walked in there one afternoon and he declared I had to have it. As usual, he was right. Rose moves easily from country rock to lounge crooner with a sexy swagger that’s irresistible.

Black Lillies – Runaway Freeway Blues. Last year, it was Shovels and Rope. This year it is the Black Lillies, simply a great alt-country band. Superb stories, the ability to be quiet and rocking. Listen to “The Fall” and try to tell me otherwise.

Kim Richey – Thorn in My Heart.Kim has traveled a lot of ground, geographically and sonically, moving from Nashville to London and back again. This brings her back to the beginnings, the great country songs that got her start in Nashville (we met in the 1990s when she was the centerpiece of a story on songwriters). There’s plenty of heartache here and that’s mighty fine. Check out the duet with Jason Isbell on “Break Away Speed.”

Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward. Robbie is in trad country mode here and he pulls it off with deep, reflective grace. He writes about place, about memory, about everyday things. “That’s Where I’m From” is brilliant.

Bill Callahan – Dream River. Callahan is best known as Smog. I didn’t know him until a PR person sent me this dark, stunning, occasionally baffling album. Think of Leonard Cohen meets Tom Waits. At times, Callahan uses his baritone as much to convey sounds and feelings as he does words. Listen to him sing “barroom, barroom” in “Seagull” or “Beer. Thank you” in the opener, “The Sing.”

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.She started out as an alt country chanteuse and now Case’s songs and vocals have become increasingly complex and unpredictable. But this album may also be her most beautiful.

Holly Williams – The Highway. Yes, she has a famous daddy and a famous granddaddy, but this is the third strong solo album from the haunting Holly. She sings of love, of life on the road, and of life’s realizations on this quiet, reflective record.

Chic Gamine – Closer. Four women with incredible voices, one percussionist. For the most part, that’s it on this album which merges doo wop, soul, and girl group pop. I dare you not to love the title cut.

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – “Cheater’s Game.” Robison and Willis, partners in life, finally release a duo disc. Great choice of covers, superb harmonies, rough and smooth.

Garland Jeffreys – Truth Serum. Garland, another North Shore Point House Concerts alum, has typically been a slow writer, leaving years between albums, but he has been on a roll. This is another strong effort, typically mixing rock, pop, reggae, and blues along with social commentary.

Slaid Cleaves – Still Fighting the War.His best album in a list of good ones, affecting, honest.

The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow.I played this once and set it aside only to revisit it months later. This is catchy Americana with stunning harmonies — from a Brooklyn group.

Tim Easton – Not Cool.Easton comes back strong with a retro Sun Records sound.

Greg Trooper – Incident on Willow Street. The man can sing with such emotion. Soulful Americana. He’s been one of my favorite songwriters for a long time.

One of the songs I played a ton wasn’t released in 2013. It was Amanda Shires “When You Need a Train.” It’s darkly brilliant.

Garland Jeffreys Speaks the Truth

garland   For Garland Jeffreys, the 13 years between albums before 2011’s “The King of In Between” were a time to focus on raising his daughter. Savannah is 17 now, a songwriter with a considerable following, so Jeffreys again has directed his considerable energies and restless creativity towards writing and performing. And, oh, how that’s evident on his new album, “Truth Serum,” one of his best albums in a catalog full of moving, important work.

“This new album was really a different kind of experience,” Jeffreys says from his New York apartment. “These songs came out, bang, whole songs. I don’t know where they came from. And then, in the studio, each song was one take.”

After “The King of In Between, ” Jeffreys’ relatively low profile disappeared with appearances on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” onstage with his old pal, Bruce Springsteen, and performances across the globe (Jeffrey’s has remained popular in Europe where his song, “Matador” remains a radio staple). Jeffreys recently turned 70, but his live performances and his joy for life are undiminished. He will still jump from the stage and strut through the audience. When one story ends, there’s always another about to begin, if you’re listening. And he’s as confident in his writing as he’s ever been.

“I’m on the 90-year plan,” he says, adding that he figures he can perform for at least another decade. “And that means I’ll be working on songs, man. That’s it. My wife has been kicking my ass on a regular basis. She’s got a kick that’s pretty heavy. She’s really pushed me and it’s been for the good.”

“Truth Serum” is, in some ways, the model of a Garland Jeffreys album. You never know what you’ll hear next. It opens with the blues of the title cut, then segues into the catchy “Any Rain.”Dragons to Slay” is a sly piece of reggae from the guy his buddy, Bob Marley, said was the best American reggae singer. He makes a nod to Savannah with the off-the-cuff fire of “Collide the Generations,” tucks troubles away with “Far Far Away,” and dreams of “Colorblind Love.”

“Any Rain” is the cut getting the most attention. It’s an older song, something he wrote and put away during the “King of In Between” sessions because he wasn’t satisfied with it. “I picked up the song again,” he says. “That happens. You’re in a different place. I started working on it and there it was. It was rough when I brought it into the studio to Larry (Campbell) and the gang, but they jumped all over it and we had it in one take.”

In an essay in The New York Times, Jeffreys writes about “Far Far Away,” a cut laid down on cassette tape and then forgotten until he started to work on the album.

“The process of writing songs is still pretty much as mysterious to me as it was in the beginning. The tune, the words are still rattling around somewhere inside me and I just need to locate them,” he writes. “I’m often alone and very sensitive to when I’m getting close because a little bit of hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck excitement begins. It can be just a few stray words to signal the song, but I don’t presume I’m anywhere, yet. The line, back to the line — could it be the title? I go back to it and worry it, but have to remain patient, talk to myself, for I could still be nowhere. Slow, easy, cool down. Rushing can ruin the whole thing. If my humility is there I have a chance of maintaining the delicate atmosphere and getting started.”

Jeffreys again explores race and what it means to be neither white nor black, as he did with his masterful 1992 album, “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat.” On the slow-burning “It’s What I Am,’ he recites a litany of traits, mostly good, and notes “Too white to be black, too black to be white.”

He says race remains an issue so he will continue to write about it. “For the longest time I haven’t been really bothered (personally) by any race issues. People on the street, they see me and don’t know what the hell I am,” he adds. “But the whole issue is still so powerful.”

His grandmother was Puerto Rican. His grandfather was black and white and probably part Native American. He was raised Catholic, the only family of color in church. He grew up on Coney Island and still visits the neighborhood.

“Because of my grandmother, I was raised Catholic. Because of my grandfather we had a black experience. But I was light skinned and everybody in the neighborhood didn’t know how to relate to me,” he notes. “I didn’t know how to relate to them. I think I was frowned upon, looked down on, by the other kids my age. It’s been a journey. I think, in the end, I got stronger. I began to see myself in terms of my strengths rather than what might be considered a weakness. .”

Jeffreys started singing in kindergarten. He remembers crooning “Do the Huckle Buck.” When he was older, he sang “It’s Almost Tomorrow” at an assembly. “That was it, man,” he says remembering. “That was the way a career started.”

In 1973, he released his first solo album, “Garland Jeffreys.” A single not on the album, “Wild in the Streets,” became an FM radio hit. Among those who played on the tune were Dr. John and the Brecker Brothers.

Much of the same studio crew that joined him on “The King of In Between” returnes. Larry Campbell and Duke Levine on guitars. Steve Jordan on drums (all but one cut because he left to join Eric Clapton on the road). Brian Mitchell on keys. Zev Katz jumped in to play bass.

Jeffreys knew when he returned that he would have to start over again in some ways. “We didn’t know we were going to have a kid and we worked at it, Then, there it is. She was born and we decied to enjoy that experience,’ he says.” Now, she’s 17. She’s doing so well as a developed person who’s growing, getting ready for college. She’s very independent. She’s got all the signs you want your kid to have.”

So it was time to focus on the music again. “I felt like I had to start all over again, which was not exactly true,” Jeffreys says. “I had the feeling I had to go back and play these small shows, these house concerts.”

(One of the first small shows he did in the States was my house concert series, North Shore Point House Concerts, in Norfolk nearly a decade ago, performing as a duo and singing until his voice gave out. He returned two years ago for a second concert. In each, he was the consummate showman, walking through the crowd, jumping from the stage, and drawing out his fine back catalog of cuts like “Ghost Writer,”New York Skyline” and “I May Not Be Your Kind.”)

The album was funded by more than 425 fans who donated on “Within in a couple of days, we had our total,” he says. “I was shocked.”

Did he ever have doubts he could still perform up to his standards? “I had to be clear on this in my own head,” he says. “One one hand, there was no doubt. In another way, I couldn’t prove there was no doubt until I actually started doing it. Now, all those (shows) have created much more confidence. There’s no uncomfortability, just an ability to go out there and do a show at any time on a high level.”

His tour will move from North America to Europe, then Australia and even China. He’s beloved in Belgium and Holland.

“I feel healthy,” he adds. “I see myself playing for another ten years at least. Number one: What else am I going to do? Number two: I get to go and play and see lots of my friends all over the world.”

That leads into a story about how he was originally denied admittance to a study abroad program in Italy when he was at Syracuse. Jeffreys knocked on the door of the professor involved, went inside, and laid out why he was qualified. The professor was blunt: “this was a race issue.” There had never been a person of color chosen. A few days later, Jeffreys was accepted.

“That was a mindblowing experience,” he says. “It taught me so much. You see what happens when you stick up for yourself. You go with what you believe in and you succeed.”

Later, there’s another story about seeing Bob Marley open for Bruce Springsteen at Max’s Kansas City in 1973. Jeffreys learned about reggae and Marley from the towel guy at the YMCA downtown, beginning a lifelong love of reggae, which he says is a simple chord structure, perfect for him. Later, they would hang out, and Jeffreys would go on to do some shows with Jimmy Cliff.

That reminds him of a time in 1964 when they were at Syracuse and Reed said this group, The Rolling Stones, were coming and they had to see them. So what happened?

‘I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about,” Jeffreys says, breaking into a laugh.

“But I’m not going to say anymore. That’s it.”

A master showman, of course, always leaves his audience wanting more.

My Favorite Albums of 2011

For me, it was a good year for music. I listened to more and liked more than I have in several years.

Here are the albums I listened to and enjoyed the most.

Garland Jeffreys – “The King of In Between”

Jeffreys’ first album in 13 years features his strongest material since 1991’s “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” one of the signature discs of that decade. Jeffreys typically moves easily through rock and roll, reggae, and folk blues as the melodic foundation for his mix of personal history and social commentary.

J.D. Souther – “Natural History”

Souther takes his considerable back catalog, notably songs like “New Kid in Town,” “Sad Cafe,” and “Best of My Love” that were hits for The Eagles, and strips them down to their basics. showcasing his silky voice.

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers — “Starlight Hotel.”

What a revelation. Muth comes out of Seattle, but does country the old fashioned way, backed by pedal steel and telecaster. The songs are smart, funny, and sad. She’s an authentic new voice not to miss.

Tara Nevins – “Wood and Stone”

Nevins’s second solo effort is a stellar collection that moves easily from fiddle music to contemporary folk rock to Cajun. It’s an album that sounds familiar, yet new, not an easy feat. Nevins is joined by a few guests, notably Levon Helm, who pounds the skin on three cuts, Jim Lauderdale, who lends harmonies on the back porch sound of “Snowbird,” and Allison Moorer. Larry Campbell, the multi-instrumentalist genius who has played extensively with Bob Dylan in recent years, produces and lends his string talents all over the place.

The Low Anthem — “Smart Flesh”

The Low Anthem’s ( first major label effort is a haunting masterpiece, a new generation’s “Music From the Big Pink.” Like the mystical alchemy The Band conjured in a West Saugerties, New York, house, the four members of the Low Anthem have created a new sound, turning our expectations of Americana (or Alt Americana, if you will) on its head, partly by using the sonics of the place.

Greg Trooper – “Upside-Down World”

When the Hammond B-3 kicks in to start this album, trailed by Trooper’s resonant, soulful, alt-country vibrato, it’s clear one of America’s best (and underappreciated) songwriters is taking us along for another enchanting ride through a life of bruised relationships, guarded hopes, and interesting characters.

Lori McKenna – “Lorraine”

The image of Lori  McKenna is that of a blue collar housewife sitting at her kitchen table penning songs that somehow find their way onto the albums of country superstars (Faith Hill, Keith Urban). But that doesn’t do justice to the depth, subtlety and honesty of her songs, stripped down to their essence on her largely acoustic solo albums (although this one has strings in just the right places and background vocals from Kim Carnes).  She is the girl who married her high school sweetheart and quickly had babies — five in all. McKenna does the difficult — writing about life, real life, with an unerring eye. It’s all here, the shadowing doubts, the gentle joys, the people we recognize from our lives. McKenna is a staple of the Boston folk scene, but her voice is more heartland than right coast, more open spaces than urban races.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – “Here We Rest.”

Isbell transports us to his native Alabama with all the ups and downs through his stories. This one puts him into the same discussion as Steve Earle and other masterful storytellers.

Lucinda Williams – “Blessed”

For me, this was a return to form for Williams, a record with aching ballads, hard rockers and without the self consciousness of the last few.

Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter – “Marble Son.”

Feedback-drenched psychedelia opens this disc, a harder shot of rock than her last one. Think of it as Americana meets Zeppelin in places. The lyrics are smart and mystical. And then there’s her voice, as alluring, as distinctive as any in music today.

The Civil Wars – “Barton Hollow”

Perhaps the surprise of the year, a quiet, intense, and beautiful melding of voices and talents. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

Wilco – “The Whole Love.”

A return to their ecclectic roots, with the expected twists and turns.

Danny Schmidt — “Man of Many Moons”

This is a smart working-man’s album, poetic and affecting, framed by Schmidt’s singing.

The Smithereens – “2011”

These guys, makers of such great rock and roll in the 1990s, hook up again with producer Don Dixon and lightning strikes twice. It’s all you’d expect from a Smithereens album.

Magic Moments: A Decade of House Concerts

It was the nightmare I’d feared for over a decade of hosting 60 house concerts: a rogue storm, threatening almost from the time Tara Nevins and Carol Elizabeth Jones took the stage, finally unleashed a torrent about an hour into the show.

Oh, it had rained before on nights I’d hosted shows at my series, North Shore Point House Concerts, but we always either had rented a tent or put the performers in the spacious wood garage. Hours earlier, my sound man and I, coddled by the clear forecast, had decided to set up outside under blue skies.

By the time the sheet of water descended, we’d covered the stage with one canopy and the sound board with another. People raced to shelter onstage, in the garage, and in the house. “We should go inside and just play acoustic,” Tara said, huddling onstage as people retrieved garbage bags to cover the instruments.

Fans with umbrellas and garbage bags ferried others inside during the deluge. There was food. There was drink. I shared bottles of Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek that I’d stashed away for the after-show. The air conditioning couldn’t keep pace; makeshift fans were fashioned.

Tara and Carol Elizabeth fixed themselves a fresh drink and sat in front of the living room fireplace. Furniture was pushed to the walls and people crowded in, many settling on the floor at their feet, a new fashioned bluegrass sit-in. Others crammed the entryway and the nearby dining room, some talking, others jockeying for a spot closer.

Tara and Carol Elizabeth played, and played, and then, when they wanted to finish, the crowd begged for one more, an old fiddle tune. A couple who attends nearly every show sat cross-legged right in front, fanning them as the music got hotter and hotter. A Donna the Buffalo fan, at his first North Shore Point show, swayed against the rear wall, occasionally singing along, encouraged by the Woodford Reserve and the moment. A daughter, up from Durham with her father, mouthed the lyrics to every song (Here is a link to their review of the evening).

They played everything they knew, outlasting the storm. With every song, every laugh or bit of applause, every shared nod, the evening became symbolic of the magic that’s happened time and again on these nights.

House concerts are many things. They’re about exploration, the thrill of discovery, of finding a new voice worth hearing. They’re about intimacy, a chance to break down the barrier between artist and audience. They’re often the only chance to get a coveted songwriter to play in this town (or many other towns, apparently; we’ve had fans travel from Nashville, Durham, D.C. and other far-flung locales for shows).

They’re about becoming a part of a community, meeting people with a shared interest in music — and maybe beer and wine and conversation. No doubt, dozens of those connections have been made at my house over the past decade. They’re about people like Bill, Mary, Mike, Wendy, Marc, Lou, Minnie, Gail, Sid, Ron, Gayle, Pat, Kelly, Russ, Barry, Charlie, Lisa, Ray, Sound Man Jim, and others who attend show after show, probably almost as much for the community as the music.
To me, house concerts, at least, my house concerts, ultimately are about these shared moments, moments created by the performer, but enabled by the setting and the community.

In the early days, artists and particularly their agents had to be convinced to book a house concert. Because of our attendance — we’ve had up 205 people at a show although a usual crowd is 80 to 100 — I’ve been able to make guarantees that made them easier to convince. Now, there are hundreds of house concert series, large and small, regularly and irregularly scheduled, across the country. They’re a part of the business plan for songwriters new and old. For every show we host, I could book five more.

At our series, all the donations at the door go to the artist. We front the money for sound, lights, chairs, when necessary, and a small stage when necessary. We do shows in three formats, outside, inside our spacious old garage, and in our living room, depending on the season and the demand for seats. Only a couple of times has the door failed to meet my guarantees and the one time the shortfall was serious happened to be the night a couple of regulars decided (not knowing) that they’d make a huge donation to help cover our costs. So, yes, each show is a nervy game of “will I cover the guarantee?,” but as host it’s my job to get the artists a decent payday.

The reward, of course, is being the maestro of those magic moments, so many over roughly 60 shows. We had a successful free trial run with Michael Lille, a superb songwriter native to Nofolk. The first show we booked asking for a donation came six months later and featured Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, a duo I’d heard on NPR. True to the shows that would follow, the informal setting encouraged them to try a song so new that Tracy read the lyrics from a notebook page. What I called the “dark womb” song appeared years later after Dave’s tragically early death on Tracy’s solo album as “Mother, I Climbed,” a haunting meditation on faith.

Indulge me looking back over a decade of the moments since that first show. Garland Jeffreys saying he didn’t need an introduction, then walking among the milling crowd, singing “Moonshine in the Cornfield” a cappella winding his way to the stage. Greg Trooper, master storyteller, mesmerizing on a chilly October night with a tale about a guy in a bar in Oklahoma, who during the break, told him he sounded just like one of his favorite songwriters, Greg Trooper.

Jeff Black bringing men to tears closing his first set with “Sunday Best” and “Gold Heart Locket. ” Jim Lauderdale saying the house had a “great vibe,” writing a song between sound check and the show, and then enduring an evening during which the electricity flickered during the first set until we realized the line into the house was literally burning out and ran extension cords to the side with good juice. Eliza Gilkyson‘s delight at returning — and then returning again. Kim Richey enchanted by her first house concert such that she sang until her voice surrendered (and then enchanted my children the next morning). She wasn’t the only first-timer. Garland Jeffreys, Dave Alvin, Steve Forbert, Marshall Crenshaw, Tom Russell, Tara Nevins, and others were house concert virgins who left converts.

There was Jason Ringenberg swinging his guitar and narrowly missing decapitating a front row fan and stomping the hardwood so hard with his boot heel that people checked for dents during halftime. Jimmy LaFave and band (a rare band show) coming into the garage on a threatening night and openly wondering if it could hold 90 people (including some outside space) and whether it was a good idea, then blowing the roof off during a summer shower and raving about the vibe and the community after the show. Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell and band hitting on all cylinders on a raucous and sweltering night. Don Dixon and Marti Jones, together again, leading the audience singing “Praying Mantis” as a round. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s very young daughter singing on stage for the first time. Sam Baker showing up with John Fullbright and Natalia Zukerman, two artists I didn’t know well, and deciding it would be cool to sit in the round with Kevin Welch and play songs all night, which the four of them made memorable. Amy Rigby making some of the men in attendance noticeably uncomfortable with songs like “Balls,” “Cynically Yours,” and “Beer and Kisses.”

The guys in Jimmy LaFave’s band lingered after the show to talk with fans. “You’ve got a special thing going on here,” one veteran of the road said. We hear that a lot, and, like hearing a regular has discovered a new favorite artist, it never gets old.

There are the before show dinners, at their best a respite for good food and conversation (at their worst, when musicians are late, a rushed feast as fans file in). Peter Case remembered the seared salmon with champagne vinegar potato sauce and requested it the next time. Mary Gauthier, once a chef, offered a bow to the honey gingered pork tenderloin. Eliza Gilkyson gobbled up the black bean and rice salad. Madison Violet squirreled away the leftovers for the long, after-show road trip to Toronto.

After the show, there’s often bourbon and BS. Welch, Baker, and Fullbright sipping bourbon and discussing an artist’s responsibility to his audience. David Olney debating racism in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” firing bourbon-laced ice at his antagonist. Trooper telling tales about Dan Penn, finishing songs for Aretha by writing in a studio closet. Martin Stephenson and his dobro player sitting out back, joining with a few regulars with guitar to play until 3 a.m. 

Performers often suggest artists to book. Welch and Richey recommended David Olney, a songwriter I didn’t know Months later at the show, a regular sitting in the back stopped me to whisper: “This guy is **&^* incredible. Where did you find him?”

Those moments are why I’m still excited before every show, why I’ve already booked shows into 2012 with artists like Steve Forbert, Garland Jeffreys, Kim Richey who’ve been here before, and artists new to North Shore like Nora Jane Struthers, Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin, Peter Cooper and Eric Brace and the legendary folk/blues master, Eric Andersen.

So I’m pouring two fingers of Knob Creek and raising a toast, not to the past,  but to the future and another decade of magic moments.

Rock and Roll Adult: Garland Jeffreys Returns from In Between

“I’m on the 90-year-plan,” Garland Jeffreys cracks.

When you’re helping to raise a 15-year-old daughter and your first album in 13 years is about to hit the market, there’s a reason to map out an ambitious future.

Jeffreys has been playing the occasional festival in Europe and the odd show here and there over the last decade, but mostly what he’s been is a full partner with his wife, Claire, raising their daughter, Savannah, in New York.

“She’s benefited from two parents who’ve been around,” he adds. “I didn’t see any reason to have a child and raise a child if you weren’t going to be around.”
She’s learned well, giving the old man a run for his money. She has a fan following on Youtube and a solo gig at The Bitter End later this month. “We’re raising an entrepreneurial rock and roller,” he says from his apartment near the East Village. “”That’s what you’ve got to be today.”

With Savannah Jeffreys well on her way, it’s time for dad to get back in the game, something Jeffreys does emphatically with “The King of In Between,” an effort worth the long wait.

“I wanted to make an album that means something,” he says. “I’ve really set the standards high and I’ve struggled at times to make songs that would work and are representative of me and what I’m thinking.”
The album features his strongest material since 1991’s “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” one of the signature discs of that decade. Jeffreys typically moves easily through rock and roll, reggae, and folk blues as the melodic foundation for his mix of personal history and social commentary.

“It’s very simple,” he says. “The music I grew up with and listened to my whole life is coming through me when I’m working.” That’s everything from Frankie Lymon to Dinah Washington to The Band to Dylan to Hank Williams and Motown.

“Some artists are easily recognized,” he adds. “Every song can sound the same on an album. I’m the opposite. I like the idea of trying to come up with a sequence of songs that are different from one another and make it work. That’s the challenge.”
For the album, Jeffreys called in favors from friends old and new. Steve Jordan plays drums, Brian Mitchell mans the keys, Mike Merritt is on bass and most of the guitar parts are played by Duke Levine and Larry Campbell. “One of the key things I say to these guys is I have no money,” Jeffreys says, chuckling. “They don’t call me for a month after that. But they understand. Any time someone asks me to sing on an album, I do it for free. You have to help out one another.”

Jeffreys called up Campbell, who he’d met in passing over the decades, and asked him to drop by his apartment to hear a few songs. The idea was for Campbell to contribute guitar and violin. But when they started recording, the two got along so well that Campbell became the album’s co-producer.
“I think the common thread — what I’m always looking for — is an honest interpretation of who you are,” Campbelladds, the morning after he’d played another one of Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles upstate. “He does that really well. The genre isn’t important. It’s about being true to yourself and expressing that. If that’s there, then I’m in.”

Campbell’s favorite cut on the disc is “Streetwise,” a slice of string-fueled Philly soul laid behind Jeffreys’ reflections on the world his child faces. Jeffreys suggested Campbell arrange the strings. Instead, he came into the studio one day with two violins and began laying down the string parts. “He doesn’t get off the seat for four hours,” Jeffreys recalls. “He lays down al lthe strings himself. I’d never seen anything like it before. The guy is amazing.”

Even Campbell says: “I think we really nailed something there. I think we really crystallized Garland’s initial vision of that tune.”

Jeffreys did return to the strudio for a couple of cuts because he felt there wasn’t enough energy on the record. One, “Coney Island Winter,” kicks off the album with ringing rock guitars and a deadpan delivery that owes a little to Jeffreys’ longtime friend, Lou Reed, who he met while a student at Syracuse University in the 1960s (Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals was another running mate there).

Other cuts like “All Around the World” and “The Contortionist,” featuring Reed and Savannah Jeffreys on background vocals, dip into reggae. “‘Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me” is a a shuffle that would make ZZ Top proud.

“Sooner or later gonna dust my broom,” he sings. It’s one of two songs on the album about facing mortality; the other is “In God’s Waiting Room.” “Here I am loving the song. I check with Larry and Steve and they think it’s great. I bring it home and my wife and daughter hate it,” he says. “I’m not connecting with the idea it could mean I’m going to die. I’m thinking about what a great song it is.”

Jeffreys admits he’s been wondering recently if he’ll live long enough to be around when his daughter makes her first record or gets married. “I’m not planning on leaving any moment too soon,” he says. “I’m healthy. I have no illnesses.”

The songs were written over the last five years and many were played live in the studio with the band. “There’s nothing like having a great band, a great bunch of players,” Jeffreys says. “You go over it, you get the chords straight and lay the track down, vocals at the same time, and there it is. You can add a couple of things afterwards.”

There is a sweetness as well as a toughness to his writing. The album explores the New York of his youth and of today, moving from remembrances of Coney Island to what he sees on the street outside his Stuyvesant Town apartment, where he says he likes to go down and sit in the park and shot the breeze.

As always, Jeffreys explores race and identity, which he addressed directly on “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” notably with “Hail, Hail Rock ‘N’ Roll” and “The Color Line.”

Jeffreys himself found it hard to fit in (listen to “I May Not Be Your Kind’). His father was the product of black and white parents. His grandmother was Puerto Rican. His grandfather was part Native American. He was raised Catholic, the only family of color in church.

“There was the awkwardness of being different,” he says, singing a line from “Spanish Blood:” “Say you’re Spanish; say you’re Spanish blood.”

That’s what he did as a youth, pass as Spanish, not black. “I would hide and get through,” he adds, hiding in his own skin.

And he notes that his daughter is a mixture of races as well and “lives in a world that is totally accepting. She said to me, ‘Dad, that’s your problem, not mine.’ ”

“I absolutely love to see my daughter with her friends hanging out on the basketball court with all kinds of kids,” he adds. “It’s that way now.”

Jeffreys started singing in kindergarten. He remembers crooning “Do the Huckle Buck,” offering a few lines during the interview. When he was older, he sang “It’s Almost Tomorrow” at an assembly. “That was it, man,” he says remembering. “That was the way a career started.”
After studying at Syracuse and abroad in Italy, he dropped out of graduate school and started a band. He moved upstate for a while, then returned to the city.

In 1973, he released his first solo album, “Garland Jeffreys.” A single not on the album, “Wild in the Streets,” became an FM radio hit. Among those who played on the tune were Dr. John and the Brecker Brothers.
His biggest hit came later in the 1970s with “Matador” off the “American Boy and Girl” album. The tune hit the top of the charts in several European countries. “It came out in ’79 and it still produces revenue and helps provide for our lifestyle,” he says. “I wish every songwriter has one of these.”

Most of his catalog is out of print, but he intends to get them back on the shelves and online in the next few months.
Jeffreys turns 68 this month, but he looks and sounds much younger. Being a songwriter hasn’t been easy over the past decade. He’s remained big in Europe; he’ll play festivals in Spain and Belgium this summer with his Europe-based band, The Coney Island Playboys. But he’ll focus more on playing in the States, building again a fan base.

Jeffreys headed upstate to play a Midnight Ramble with Helm and Campbell a few weeks ago, closing the show with a sing-along of “The Weight.” “I’m glad he’s doing it again,” Campbell says. “You can see he’s got all that enthusiasm and fire. He just gives it up. He’s the real thing.