Luke Winslow-King unleashes the elements on his new album Blue Mesa (Bloodshot Records) and at his live shows. At least, that’s been my experience. As a native New Yorker, I was Professionally Unimpressed long before I began writing about music. I am also terrible at recognizing celebrities. Once, I scowled at Fred Armisen’s fashion-forward look before realizing he was, in fact, Fred Armisen.
But when I went to Mardi Gras three years ago, I was completely starstruck when I passed by Luke Winslow-King sipping coffee at a cafe on Frenchman Street. I was too tongue-tied to say anything, and maybe stared at him a little too hard when I walked by. I caught him at Jazz Fest the next year. Anyone who’s been out to the Fairgrounds knows that Jazz Fest tends to be rainy. A few minutes into Winslow-King’s blistering, blues-heavy set, the heavens opened and we were all soon ankle-deep in water. I’m not saying Winslow-King’s guitar solos cracked the heavens, but was it really a coincidence?
Needless to say, I was excited for Blue Mesa‘s release. Here’s the thing that strikes me about Winslow-King: he’s just effortlessly cool. The man’s been buttering his bread with blues guitar to be sure, but Winslow-King’s wizardry doesn’t come from primeval howls. Instead, Winslow-King’s magic is in its efficiency. At the Mercury Lounge in New York City on Tuesday night, Winslow-King married the blues to New Orleans stomp to command the forces of heartache and healing.
Blue Mesa, Winslow-King’s sixth album, finds the singer-songwriter returning to his roots — literally. After 15 years of tearing it up in New Orleans, Winslow-King returned to his hometown of Cadillac, Mich. The songs delve into the dissolution of longtime relationships, the cautious beginnings of new love, and Winslow-King’s vow to remain a wanderer. The album was recorded in the Tuscan fortress village of Lari, Italy and features long-time collaborator and Italian blues guitar dynamo Roberto Luti, Chris Davis of King James and the Special Men, and Mike Lynch (Bob Seger, Larry McCray) on organ, among others.
While the album has a spaciousness that invokes its title, I was eager to see what the songs would turn into live. The band was a three-piece with Chris Davis on drums Brooklyn-based bassist Christian Carpender. Live, the band transmutes these songs into pieces that have a forceful presence and restrained minimalism. Davis brings rapturous New Orleans breakdowns to King’s straightforward tunes while Carpender commanded the low end. Winslow-King’s autobiographical “Cadillac Slim,” a blues rocker on his previous I’m So Glad Trouble Doesn’t Last Always, becomes a one-man second line in Davis’s hands. The songs can get a bit emotionally heavy, so it’s good to see Winslow-King inject some fun into them by tweaking some solos and riffs to fill in the spaces the album left open. Winslow-King is not the type of player to melt your face with solos — he cares too much about serving the music for that kind of egotism. Instead, his disciplined solos conjure the tentativeness of good times chasing the bad.
You can find Luke Winslow-King’s tour dates here.