Listen now on:
Masochist that I am, and with nothing better to do, sometime during the summer of 2012 I tuned the box to WGN and watched a Chicago Cubs afternoon home game out of Wrigley Field. I grew up on the Windy City’s Near North Side; watching the North Side club fail remains damaging, yet reflexive. I can’t remember who their opponent was that day, but they got walloped.
Fortunately for Cubs fans, there are other things you can do within the Friendly Confines. You can, for instance, get extremely drunk. Or you can look at girls. On the day in question, as they do regularly, WGN’s broadcast team leeringly swept the ballpark with their cameras, training their lenses on the ladies sunning themselves in the stands. And, for a minute or so, JD McPherson’s “North Side Gal” poured out of the TV set.
McPherson’s hot little slice of heaven had already been adopted as a Cubbies anthem—he would play opening day at the park the following year. I had already embraced the Oklahoma-born musician’s 2010 album Signs & Signifiers, a product of Chicago’s Hi-Style Records that had just been rereleased by Rounder Records. I could relate, on a number of levels. The tune’s lyrics called up my own youth in the wilds of the North Side, where I was a flop with chicks: “I’ve got some good talk, but not enough game.” On a deeper musical level, it reached me as the best latter-day roots music does, using the tools of early rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, blues, and R&B to fabricate something contemporary, personalized, and immediate.
Hearing Signs & Signifiers hurtled me back 30 years, when I returned home to watch The Blasters tape a PBS special at a venue called Stages, just blocks up Clark Street from Wrigley Field. On that occasion, the L.A. band appeared behind two of their inspirations, Chess Records’ titanic songwriter Willie Dixon and rockabilly deity Carl Perkins. The torch had been passed, the telecast suggested, from the originators to what was now a third generation. McPherson’s arrival seemed to trumpet another leap in roots history.
I found myself comparing The Blasters’ Phil Alvin to McPherson. Both men managed to sink themselves into the black roots of their music without a trace of blackface; effortlessly, McPherson sounds like bluesman Roy Brown as frequently as he does rockabilly guitarist/singer Dale Hawkins. One hears Phil’s brother Dave in him as well, in his direct, genre-spanning guitar work and most particularly in his songwriting, which appears ready to take one step beyond the inspirations that have suffused his work to date.
What’s there already—played with clean fervor by white-haired doghouse bassist-producer Jimmy Sutton and baby-faced drummer-keyboardist-engineer Alex Hall, with tickles of sax and strings—is right in the pocket. For me, the deepest of the album’s many pleasures come in the insistent “Wolf Teeth,” possibly the best rockin’ werewolf song ever; the pyromaniacal “Fire Bug”; and the bruising “I Can’t Complain,” which kicks off with a guitar outburst worthy of Magic Sam, late lord of Chicago’s West Side.
But it’s on the album’s sinuous, weirdly ululating title track, which simmers on a low flame for four-and-a-half hypnotic minutes, and the roomily prophetic reverie “A Gentle Awakening,” which rides a trickling piano lick and splashes of subdued strings, that McPherson suggests the best is yet to come. Signs & Signifiers, though it barely grazed the charts two years ago, announces that the American roots songbook can still be plumbed for fresh revelations.
And to the Cubs brotherhood: Chin up. The worst may still be yet to come, but at least you’ve got a great song to dance to during the seventh-inning stretch.
BONUS CUT: Signs And Signifiers is pulling from some pretty deep roots. We gathered up 10 tracks from rock & roll’s early days that sound just as dangerous now as they did when they first upended America in the ’50s.