Monday, May 08, 2023

Joe Keithley bares a folkie heart on Stand

I always wished Lemmy Kilmister would record a straight-up acoustic blues album. Headcat - his rockabilly side-project - was fun enough, but there are much bluesier moments throughout Motorhead's discography, most notably "Whorehouse Blues" - probably the only pure acoustic blues number in Motorhead's repertoire, but there's also the electric "Lost Woman Blues," which is equally potent. There are other moments like that here and there, but why not do a whole album to showcase Lemmy's diversity and lift people outside the narrow confines of metal and punk? 

He never did it, and now it's too late...

Being of such a mind, I really enjoy Joe Keithley's side projects, since they do exactly what I wished Lemmy would have done, albeit in a folk idiom, not (for the most part) in a blues one. Stand, his third departure from DOA, takes Joe's humanistic, fair-play politics, his uniquely gravelly voice and his expressive guitar strumming deep into the realms of roots music, and uses them to welcome effect; while there is little that is particularly original on the album, there is still great pleasure to be had in hearing familiar songs presented in a new way, and there are some inspired covers; and one new song that fits perfectly with Joe's politics and the current climate in Vancouver. 

It's not the first time he's recorded a folky solo album, of course. The somewhat neglected classic "original" Joe Keithley folk album is 1999's Beat Trash, which - again, along with a few originals - sees Joe covering Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, as well as doing acoustic reworkings of DOA songs (like "You Won't Stand Alone," originally on 1998's Festival of Atheists, which Joe, in a surprising bleedover from his musical career to his political one, would later cover with Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley on bass!). 


Stand is very much of a piece with Beat Trash, so much so that the Leadbelly song in question ("There's a Man Going 'Round Taking Names") gets reused - same song, different recording. There are also Johnny Cash and Stompin' Tom covers - the Cash being a song DOA has also recorded, including in a rather famously fucked-up, slowed down version on Loggerheads, which version I think Joe kind of dismisses now, but which I rather love. Meanwhile, the Stompin' Tom song (originally entitled "The Bridge Came Tumbling Down," here given as "19 Scarlet Roses") has been covered by Les Claypool and others; the song is about the disaster that killed fourteen workers on the Second Narrows Bridge and got it re-named the Ironworkers Memorial bridge - a piece of local history that I'm glad to have cause to educate myself on. Joe has done other Stompin' Tom covers and riffs over the years; they work very well indeed. I'm guessing that's Floor Tom Jones on drums, from the rockabilly propulsiveness of the beat, but there is precious little online about who is playing what on the album (or who wrote what), so you may just have to buy the album to get these deets straight.

Of course, there are also a couple of reworked DOA songs on Stand, including what is probably the most musically enjoyable version ever of "The Warrior Lives Again," which originally appeared as "The Warrior Ain't No More" on Let's Wreck the Party, but has resurfaced under the less grim new title once or twice since (again, can't tell you who the female co-vocalist is, but she's well-used, and I believe she pops up again on "Fentanyl Blues," more on which below). There's even an acoustic take on (most) everyone's favourite classic DOA tune, "2+2" co-written by Keithley and original DOA drummer Chuck Biscuits. It holds up just fine with acoustic guitar and mandolin; you'd never know it began its life as a punk song. I'm not sure where "Ginger Goodwin," about a coal mining labour activist, originally hails from - I believe it also first appeared on a DOA album at one point; it's also on Beat Trash.  

I think, in fact, there is only one 100% original song on Stand, "Fentanyl Blues," the topic of which is obvious and relevant; the song puts Joe's voice to great use, and does indeed have a blues element to it (weird: I swear I saw a rock video for that online, but now I can't find it...). The only other song that is kind of new - but only kind of is an expanded version of "This Machine Kills Fascists," which did appear on DOA's Northern Avenger, but only in the form of a minute long sketch. The song is named off something written on Woody Guthrie's guitar, and is a fine idea for a tune, but on Northern Avenger the song ends before it can really get its hooks in you - it's more of a teaser, there. It makes a solid (4 minute+) album closer, here.

But the song on Stand that excites me most is "Men for All Ages," probably one of the silliest but most inspired and likeable things Joe has done since DOA covered "That's Life" - but made even better by virtue of it being an original; it's Joe's fond homage to Star Trek, which I know best as "Captain Kirk, Spock, Scotty and Bones" off Talk-Action=0, but which originally came out under the current title on another, more electric Keithley side-project, his Band of Rebels album (which, I'll fess up, I don't know so well; "People Power" is also on it). When I spoke to Joe about it in 2018, telling him the Star Trek song was one of my favourites on his recent albums, he responded that DOA had never done it live, quipping that "I gotta get that to Bill Shatner, because he’s a Canadian, too, and he’d probably appreciate it. It’s a really good song... And it’s very unknown." Maybe I'll finally have a chance to hear this song live, when Joe returns to touring, now that it's surfaced on record again? I'm glad to see Joe thinking there's still life in it, one way or another. 

So there's lots to enjoy on Stand. People might balk at the idea of having an album consisting almost entirely of covers and re-workings of songs that appear on other albums, but this is exactly what you used to see old-school folk musicians do, covering songs, reworking them, adding verses, changing titles, and re-contextualizing bits of them to make new wholes. That's what folk music used to be. The pressure to have constantly original material protected by firm copyright has more to do with how music functions under capitalism than it does with these traditions, which Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, and Woody Guthrie were all firmly entrenched in. Joe is very much working in that tradition, too. Plus while the songs are sometimes familiar, the presentation of them is not; if you enjoyed Beat Trash and have ever had cause to wish Joe would do another album like it, you're going to really dig what he's doing here; it's a worthy follow-up. It may even draw in a new audience for Keithley; some people, like my wife, for instance, are put off by the aggro noisiness of punk, but I suspect I'll be able to get away with spinning Stand while she's home, which is win-win, for me. Hope to get to see it played live sometime soon, too...

...speaking of which, Joe tells me he is recovering just fine from his hernia operation and says he should be back to playing shows by late June. Lots of time to check out Stand before then. 

Play the Star Trek song, Joe! Please?

No comments: