Jerry Joseph, Abe Partridge & Will Stewart Team Up In Felton: Review

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You don’t really know how sturdy a song is until you get down to the bone. Pared to single voice and single instrument, a song reveals whether it walks or stumbles. In many ways, solo live performance is the stand-up comedy of music where one parades this striding and stumbling in front of strangers, over and over, while fending off prattle mouths, perpetual TV sports drone, barroom commerce and other stumbling blocks.

Hopping in a van to play stand-naked gig after gig is simply one of the bravest things a singer-songwriter can do. On Thursday, August 1 at the newly reopened Felton Music Hall In Felton, California Jerry Joseph, Abe Partridge and Will Stewart, three guys built for this rough road, held a clinic in how this revealing, difficult thing is done.

The Alabama-based Stewart began the evening “singing songs of the golden hour” accompanied by his ringing, reverb-rich electric guitar, his voice strong but unforced, a lean-in sound that serves his bruised but unbowed tunes.

“I try to find the good in everything,” he sang. “It’s the only way to keep from going insane.”

Stewart’s songs ache for the next phase, to grow beyond where one finds themselves, always “a day away from where I want to be,” as Jackson Browne put it. Drawn heavily from his tender, deeply listenable 2018 debut album, County Seat, his set spoke to feeling like a stowaway in life, red wine and empathetic songs your only real friends.

“Hope you like sad stuff because that’s pretty much all I have.”

This is on-the-way-to-something music, “moving day comin’ soon” anthems while one ponders what, if anything, it’s all worth, a feeling encapsulated by set closer “Heaven Knows Why.”

I’ve slept through the sunlight

One too many times

Chasing the feeling

And Heaven knows why

Fellow Alabaman Abe Partridge followed with his beautifully battle scarred guitar emblazoned with “This machine kills” on the front, and it didn’t take long before he showed plenty of reasons Woody Guthrie would have liked him.

“Were you there when the revolution was still young?” he asked in his opening ode this his generation referencing Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley and other touchstones. In Partridge’s song, “Good guys and bad guys ain’t so easily defined.”

A former preacher in Middlesbrough, Alabama, described as “a beautiful place with terrible people,” Partridge illuminates the dichotomy of living in the south if one is enlightened and actually tries to live Christian values in this mean old world.

“There ain’t no rhyme or reason but stay with me, brother, and I wonder if we’ll hear an angel’s wings if we turn the volume down,” he intoned, his voice burnished with life in a most John Prine way.

Filled with baby astronauts, kindred spirit for the Black Rock tribal protests, and songs “written for assholes that yell for ‘Freebird’ at shows,” Partridge’s catalog – beginning with his fantastic 2018 debut Cotton Fields and Blood For Days – and affecting live presence mark him as a proverbial “one to watch” and future festival circuit favorite.

A sitting with Jerry Joseph is always a benediction, a mirror for humanity’s true faces that simultaneously balms & becalms modernity’s agitated, befuddled state. Despite Joseph’s claim that “things are so heavy today and you add my songs my songs to it and it’s so much heavier,” I’ve never seen him play and not felt lighter of spirit afterwards. Felton Music was no exception.

Being so near the Pacific Coast just outside Santa Cruz, the rarely played “Mary Star Of The Sea” reminded us of Joseph’s instincts for music that fits a time and place well.

Hard to trust what you can’t see

A living thing inside of me

Fleas and blood and poetry

He’s always been remarkably open onstage but these days he lets it all hang out, so to speak, sharing tidbits on travel, parenting, marriage and much more. Joseph offers new eyes on the human experience, both exotic and mundane.

“One of the problems with getting old is I used to write songs about shooting dope and weird sex and hanging out on roofs. Now I drink diet Red Bull and hang out at farmers markets.”

His set gained pleasing new layers when Will Stewart joined him mid-set for “War At The End Of The World,” which he explained was “the product of infatuation with Brazilian authors.” The improvised interpolations of Stewart’s guitar blended organically with Joseph’s own ever-underrated picking in a most natural way, a lovely conversation the gathered few got to eavesdrop on, the combination elevating every number.

New song “I Think I’m Here” is about the middle period of being married where “you’re doing the dishes and turn to your wife and ask, ‘Do you even like me?’ and there’s a slight pause before she answers.” It’s heady material and Joseph told me he hopes to plumb this largely unexplored territory on his next solo album.

“Wisconsin Death Trip” closed his set with soul shaking grace, Stewart’s added tintinnabulation making a special song all the more so. Joseph’s small, faithful choir sang along raising a quiet prayer to the high, weathered wooden ceiling.

When the small hand hits five

Sirens will sound

We all clap, we’re alive

As it rings through the town

See the light in our eyes

As we gather around

“I don’t usually do encores with the acoustic thing because it feels weird,” said Joseph, never leaving the stage, “so let’s just pretend this is the encore.”

After citing Donald Fagen and recently departed Amazing Rhythm Aces singer-songwriter Russell Smith as primary lyricist influences, he and Stewart dove into a fitting Rhythm Aces cover to cap the night.

I’d have to come back home

‘Cause this living on the road

Only makes me tired and sore

Like a bird without a nest

Like a stranger in the night

And my soul cries out for rest

And the end is not in sight

Seeing Jerry Joseph is a way to refill your reservoirs of truth and realness. His Alabama companions this round struck one as cut from the same cloth, and all in all it was a nurturing pleasure to spend a night in their company.

Jerry Joseph Setlist

Set: Buddha Jim, Mary Star Of The Sea, Searchlight, White Peaches, Tick, War At The End Of The World *, Dead Confederate *, Panama > Out Of The Woods *, I Think I’m Here *, Under The Lilacs > Have You Seen Her *, Wisconsin Death Trip > Maybe I’m Amazed *, The End Is Not In Sight *

* – with Will Stewart

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