July 2004

Welcome Back

Gary U.S. Bonds sounds as young and lively over the phone as he does on his terrific new disc, Back in 20 [MC Records MC-0052], his first album of new material in 20 years (hence the title). When I tell him his publicity guy put me in touch with him, he jokes, "Oh, he’ll give my number to anybody!" At 65, Bonds seems to have the same enthusiasm for making music -- and for life -- that he had in 1960, when he scored his first hit with "New Orleans." The cover photo on the disc shows him in a black leather suit and he looks chic and stylish. He's helped on Back In 20 by a few other musicians, including Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Phoebe Snow, and Dickie Betts, and he looks younger than all of them.

A history of Bonds’ treatment by record companies over the years ("They’ll leave you hangin’," he says matter-of- factly) makes his upbeat attitude surprising. Bonds had a series of hit records in the '60s, including one that Bruce Springsteen later used to kick his shows into high gear, "Quarter to Three." In 1981 Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt co-produced Dedication, Bond’s first recording in 20 years. It was released on EMI and a single from the album, "This Little Girl," reached #11 on the charts. Springsteen and Van Zandt produced another recording for him, On the Line, but when Bonds brought EMI his next recording, which he produced, the label took a pass.

Bonds survived, financially and as an artist, by performing. Although he's down to about 100 performances a year from a peak of 200, he says, "I still love it. My greatest thrill of all is being on stage. The only hard part is getting to the gig. That’s what I get paid for." His six-piece touring band, the Roadhouse Rockers, backs him on the disc and they kick it hard. Back In 20 is 46 minutes of good, sweaty, blues-based rock'n'roll, most of it co-written by Bonds and his daughter, Laurie Anderson. When I said I was particularly taken with the lively horn arrangements, he told me, "I do them here [at his home] on keyboards, but everybody pitches in." Bonds suggests on the opening track that "You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks," but you don’t need new tricks when the ones you already know are this good.

Bonds recorded Back In 20 at his home studio, sharing the engineering chores with his daughter. "It was an experimental thing. I wondered how I’d do with all this." Laurie (she’s known as Li’l Mama, since her mom’s name is also Laurie) put the studio together. "She started asking questions and picking up stuff. It took about two, maybe two and half years to put together." The result with Back In 20 is a clean and uncluttered, no-frills recording that has a tight, live feel. "I thought it was a pretty good effort, first time out."

The idea for Back In 20 came about when Bonds went to the Blue Note in New York to the see a friend who was playing drums for Jimmy Smith. "Some guy at the club said, ‘You’d be great doing a blues record.’ That stuck in my mind, but I didn’t want to do what B.B. King or Bobby Bland do. Those guys are masters." In fact, Back In 20 merges rock, blues, and '60s soul. Bonds and his band keep things moving along on the disc and it gets you up on your feet. "I guess it came out as roadhouse blues -- blues that rocks." Even blues purists should find the honesty and pure feeling of Back In 20 to be to their liking. The rest of us can simply be thankful that a singer as good as Bonds has made a well-crafted record that’s such unabashed fun.

Bonds is lucky to have a band that gives him exactly what he needs, whether it’s the hard-swinging blues of "Fannie Mae" (a terrific duet with Southside Johnny) or the understated soul of Otis Redding’s "I’ve Got Dreams to Remember." Bonds’ performance of the latter is so moving that it alone justifies owning the disc. Guitarist Mark Leimbach’s stinging lead-guitar work stands out on Back In 20, but it’s reed players Joe Stann and Dan Cipriano who hold things together, both as soloists and as ensemble players. I might have mixed Jim Wacker's barrelhouse piano higher and given Lance Hyland Stark's drums a little more snap, but this recording gives a good feel for how strongly the Roadhouse Rockers function as a unit.

After talking to Bonds for a while, I got the feeling golf was nearly as strong a passion as music for him. Mark Leimbach is apparently as avid a golfer as his boss, and it was at a benefit golf tournament that Bonds met Dickie Betts. "We sat down and had some drinks and stuff and I joined him for some tunes." When I expressed some surprise that Dickie Betts was a golfer, Bonds said, "Oh, he's an excellent golfer!" Betts told Bonds he’d play on the new disc only if Bonds agreed to visit him in Florida for a round of golf. His slide work on Keb' Mo's "She Just Wants to Dance" sets the tune up nicely and the other guest musicians also make strong contributions to Back In 20. Phoebe Snow sounds strong and confident on the very funny (but perhaps unfortunately titled) "Bitch/Dumb Ass."

MC Records’ roots lineup includes Kim Wilson, Joanna Conner, Odetta, and Sleepy Labeef. The label is stressing both blues and rock elements in Back in 20, and the disc’s driving, party atmosphere. Back In 20 is so well done it lets you enjoy its flashy playing and deep feeling while you let your hair down and cut loose. It deserves a large audience, and I hope Saturday-night blues shows put it in heavy rotation. "I get different responses to different things on the album," Bonds tells me, "People do like good music."

...Joseph Taylor

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