By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"Hopefully, this'll be the one that does it," says local singer-songwriter, guitarist, and occasional Observer music section contributor Josh Alan, referring to his new album and its chances of getting him the kind of market clout that enables artists to write their own ticket. If nothing else, however, the album's title--Blacks 'n' Jews--guarantees Alan his share of free publicity.
"People have told me, 'You can't have that for an album title,'" Alan says. The title cut is a hilarious plea for harmony between two groups that used to be close allies in the civil rights struggle. "One says 'y'all,' the other says 'youse'/Come back together now, Blacks 'n' Jews" Alan sings. "I was looking for something that'd grab you like 'Short People,'" he explains, hoping that the same thin-skinned folks who interpreted the 1978 Randy Newman hit as calling for the extermination of the vertically impaired have gotten a sense of humor in the meantime.
"I've played this at the Winedale [Tavern] and had black guys laughing at it," Alan says hopefully. "I haven't had any threats. Yet." The rest of the album--which Alan has been working on for the last 18 to 24 months--is a mixture of humorous commentary and serious songcraft. "There are cuts on this album that should be sure-fire picks for AAA and Americana stations," he explains. "My lyrics and guitar playing are my two strongest points, but I've been told by more than a couple of A&R guys that you've either got to be a hot musician or a singer-songwriter." Blacks 'n' Jews, Alan says, is his way of showing that he can do both.
Indeed, Alan's picking throughout the album is obviously the result of some hard work, whether it's on one of the four instrumentals he's put on the album ("I've had people tell me you can't do that, either," he reports) or on the songs he sings, like the blue-collar anthem "Working" or "Angels of Animals" (all titles are working titles), wherein Alan remembers the various "four-legged teachers" in his life. It's telling that when listing his strong points, Alan doesn't mention his voice. "I've never felt like I was that much of a singer," he admits. Although he's obviously been practicing--check out his jumps into falsetto--often his vocal delivery seems a bit contrived, as if he's adopted a persona through which to deliver his words. Although it works most of the time--his Josh Dylan is perfect for "Blacks 'n' Jews," and his Blind Lemon Alan fits "No One Owns the Blues" almost as well as guest duet vocalist Sam Myers--sometimes it lends his songs a vaguely artificial air. This seems most obvious after listening to "Lately," in which he recounts the distance creeping into a relationship with a voice that seems the most like his true voice.
"I don't do that consciously, but different songs affect you different ways," he says, noting that "Lately" is something of a departure for him. "I never write love songs," he says. Alan's previous album was the score to The Worst!, his musical based on the life of the notoriously inept movie producer Ed Wood that was coldcocked by the almost simultaneous release of the Tim Burton movie on the same subject. Popular enough in Europe to still generate royalty checks, the album stiffed in the States. "I think it confused a lot of people," Alan says of The Worst!. "It did better in Europe, but I want this album to do better here."
On Sunday, June 30--closing night--longtime blues institution Schooner's was already shorn of its trademarks. Gone was the plywood guitar on the roof, Lori Fitzgerald's blues portraits on the walls, the "Nighthawks at the Diner" print over the portal, the inch of piss on the men's room floor. Onstage was Hash Brown, the person most responsible for putting the place on the blues map a decade or so ago. His Sunday night jam sessions saw local lights such as Zuzu Bollin and Sam Myers, and national names like Shuggie Tutu Jones, Doyle Bramhall, Joe Jonas, Robin Syler, and more on the place's beer-can-high stage. Come swan-song time, the air was rife with the melancholy that usually accompanies an old bar's bon jour.
But some say Schooner's didn't sink, it was scuttled. Owner Dick Isley allegedly isn't bailing because the place wasn't making money (it's had good times and lean times), but because he wants to spend more time in Ohio with his aging parents; but grumpy rumors abound. When Isley fired longterm staff galore (a purge that eventually included Kathy Tinkle, a waitress who had fame of her own), patrons galore moved their trade to the Lakewood Bar & Grill; happy hour business went to hell. It's rumored that a member of the disgruntled called the IRS and TABC and made allegations that caused both to send agents a-sniffing. Pressure like this can make you dump your bar regardless of aging parents in Gloomland.
On closing night, among those who joined Hash onstage included Mighty Paul Young, Mike Morgan, and Kathy Prather. When the latter was wailing "It's Raining," Hash took a solo so eloquent it froze time. If you weren't there to hear it, not to worry--you'll hear him do it elsewhere.