With The Great Battle, Jon Dee Graham continues his humble, rugged explorations of the dark side of the clock, the complex shadings and hard work of relationships, the emotional roller-coaster of family responsibilities and the utter bone-weariness of life in general—all leavened and energized by unsinkable hope and muscular, electrifying grooves.
In nearly every facet of Art, there is an elusive 'sweet spot'—a place where talent, insight, poetic grace and experience intersect with such transparency and natural ease that the place, the moment, the emotion conveyed come to palpable life...where the 'illusion of truth' sheds its illusion and transcends into Truth itself. The ability to evaporate the barriers from representational endeavors is a quicksilver gift that eludes all but the best folks most of the time, yet it's a gift that envelops Graham like skin.
Continuing his critically acclaimed series of solo discs—including 1997's Escape From Monster Island (re-issued by New West in 2002), 1999's Summerland and 2001's Hooray For The Moon—Jon Dee continues to hone his craft and, incredibly, push the arc upward on The Great Battle.
Fellow Texan Charlie Sexton, who served as multi-faceted guitarist and whip-hand in Bob Dylan's vaunted touring/recording band from 1998-2003, was tabbed by Jon Dee to produce The Great Battle. Sexton's session experience with such varied heavyweights as Lucinda Williams, Terry Allen, Alejandro Escovedo, Rufus Wainwright, James McMurtry and Dylan made him the perfect choice to capture the sprawling emotional depth of Graham's soul-mining.
To bring further punch, clarity and engagement to the project, Graham is backed on The Great Battle by his working/touring band as the core group—long-time sidekick Mike Hardwick (Gene Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Fracasso) on guitar, dobro and pedal steel, Andrew Duplantis (Bob Mould, the new Meat Puppets, Escovedo) on bass and vocals and Jason White on drums and percussion. Jon Dee's own inimitable guitar rides high in the mix, Sexton adds piano and some grace notes on mando-guitar and octave guitar. Bruce Hughes (Bob Schneider, The Resentments) and songbird Patty Griffin each contribute a pair of notable cameos.
The result of this stellar confab is a powerful mix of ten potent Graham originals, one traditional tune (a blistering gospel shakedown on the deathless "Lonesome Valley") and a scintillating re-make/re-model of Neil Young's "Harvest."
Much has been made of Jon Dee Graham's voice. Cracked, raspy, passionate and endearing, it's drawn predictable comparisons to Tom Waits, a trainwreck or two, nine miles of bad road, and the tired "whiskey-soaked" and "two-pack a day" allusions...get over it—it's HIS voice, and you won't find many singers who have the spiritual immediacy of this one. When the singer, the music and the words come together, THIS is the stuff of greatness.
There is no short route to Graham's level of artistry; indeed, it is the culmination of a winding, eclectic path over the years, beginning with Jon Dee's membership in his early-twenties in Austin's legendary proto-punkers, The Skunks. Following a year in Lou Ann Barton's band, Graham (with Alejandro and Javier Escovedo) co-founded True Believers, a transcendent, rafter-rattling guitar army whose influence on the alt/roots rock scene of the mid-'80s and beyond far exceeds its relatively brief (1984-87) and stormy existence.
Between 1988 and 1995, Jon Dee was a much-in-demand sideman, touring and/or recording with the likes of John Doe and Exene Cervenka (both ex- of X), Ryan Hedgecock (Lone Justice), Dan Stuart (Green On Red), Michelle Shocked and Kelly Willis. And he continues to find time for a brilliant side project as a member of Austin's beloved Resentments.
The Great Battle is loaded from pillar to post with hard-won revelations and the kinds of illuminating (if shaded) vignettes rarely found in this increasingly black-or-white world. Best of all, it's propelled by a blistering, Crazy Horse rock'n'roll grind that'll at least let you dance to it while you poke around for salvation. When all is said and done though, Jon Dee Graham makes it pretty damned clear that The Great Battle cannot be WON—it can only be FOUGHT—
"Suck it up one time/you're gonna suck it up twice
Strap it up baby/and step into the light..."
So, uh, keep on swingin' it, okay?