Monday, April 22, 2013

Steve Gilligan's Jacob's Well, reviewed by Joseph Tortelli

Jacob's Well
(Actuality Records JHN46)
      On his debut album Jacob's Well, Steve Gilligan reminds us of the richness and variety of the singer-songwriter tradition. Famed on the Boston rock scene as a founding member of The Stompers and current bassist for Fox Pass, Gilligan unveils the depth of his musical craft, playing guitars, mandolin, and harmonica, along with his trusty bass. In addition to producing and composing the CD's 15 songs, Gilligan highlights his vocal pipes, which range from a wonderful tenor to a lower, earthier register. Largely an acoustic recording, Jacob's Well complements Gilligan's recent collaborations with Jon Macey and harks back to his tenure in the folk groups Open Road and City of Roses.
       Although broadly-speaking a folk-oriented album, Jacob's Well marks a recording reunion for The Stompers who play together as a unit on two songs. The chugging rockabilly "What's A Little Rock 'n' Roll Between Friends" spotlights Gilligan's Sun Records-infused vocal and Sal Baglio's electrified lead guitar riffs. The same musical quartet performs "Before The Fall," an expansive five-minute Neil Young-inspired work that opens to harmonica-infused balladry and builds to Baglio's blistering Crazy Horse-keyed playout.     
      Stompers' drummer Lenny Shea accompanies his rhythm section partner Gilligan on most tracks, sometimes adding textured percussion, other times a fuller drum kit sound. This gives Gilligan plenty of room to play all the string instruments, while singing the quirky Anglopop "Fall In Love" and "Much For Nothin'," which he decorates with terrific low-string electric guitar licks and trademarked Buddy Holly vocal hiccups. Gilligan and Shea also work together on the catchy troubadour tune "Wakin' Up Blues" and "Clock," a singer-songwriter number soaked in classic Teaser And The Firecat-era Cat Stevens.  
      Midway through the album, Gilligan enlarges his musical tapestry with accordion, cello, and violin. This drapes a stylish continental cafe atmosphere over songs like "Circus," the smokey saloon-pop "My Love For You," and "Niki's Blue Waltz," a gypsy instrumental written with pianist Dave Friedman. The delightful Baroque-pop "Mary's Garden" connects gentle Donovan-like whimsies to the real organic gifts of Gilligan's wife.
      While his lyrics are simultaneously tangible and symbolic, Gilligan also delves into spiritual themes. Recalling the incomparable British folk storyteller Ralph McTell, the expressive "Lesson In Gray" contrasts the weekly work-a-day pace with Sunday "...kept for the prayerful/To ask of the Lord for his grace." Other song lyrics reference "what the prophet told is now fulfilled" and "the bravest of strangers planning on conquering hell." Even the album title Jacob's Well seemingly refers to the holy ground associated with the patriarch Jacob in the Book of Genesis and the Samaritan woman meeting Jesus in the Gospel of John.   
      The elaborate open-out CD package includes a 16-page lyric booklet. Jacob's Well closes with a "hidden" bonus track that has Gilligan playing straight acoustic chords behind his lyrical beatnik stream.     
by Joseph Tortelli


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