Smart and smirky art project (The Worst!, an Ed Wood concept "musical") and risky-frisky Social Statement (Blacks 'n' Jews, "marching together two by two") now out of the way, Josh Alan Friedman gets back to playing lissome, smart-ass Hebrew guitar-slinger making with the strip-club soundtrack circa Jack Ruby and the Carousel. With bass and drums backing him up, the frequent Dallas Observer contributor opens with one of his own oldies ("Josh's Breakdown," previously available in acoustic form on his Famous & Poor debut), breaks out others' (Johnny Winter's "Mean Town Blues," Muddy Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin'" and Joe Liggins' "The Honey Dripper Part 2") and has balls and brains enough to recast Robert Zimmerman's "Highway 61 Revisited" as an old biblical stomper. He busts the sucker wide-open, growling and slide-guitaring his way through the muck tossed up by bassist Robby Garner and drummer Derek Rougeot. Where PJ Harvey rendered it ironic and iconic, Friedman hauls it into the Winedale at closing time and buys it a double bourbon neat.
He insists "No One Owns the Blues" (and "down in Austin," he insists, "this may be news") and rescues his holiday novelty lament ("As Chanukah Passes Me By"), which is on par with his ought-to-be-a-standard "Thanksgiving at McDonald's in Times Square." "Where my rabbi?/Have no ally/Can't remember a prayer/I used to be there," laments the lapsed Jew as a klezmer clarinet dukes it out with a roadhouse harmonica. "Eight days I cry as Chanukah passes me by." Still, it's not as funny or spot-on as his "Billionaire of the Blues" (yeah, who dat?) or the horny-horns "When a Poor Man Gets Rich," about the show-off who blows his wad on a thousand-buck watch, only to become poor once more and "has to masturbate where once he had a whore." The satirist and one-time Screw editor even slums it in Raymond Chandler territory, grousing about the rich girl who owns "Her Town" and doesn't let anyone forget the streets and the people on them belong to her. David "Fathead" Newman even drops by, blowing smoke rings through his sax beneath a broken streetlight.
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But the real coup, as far as Friedman's concerned, is "Strike a Match," a never-before-heard tune by the East Coast Jewboys who, ahem, invented rock and roll, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It's more or less a sneak peek at rock's (and R&B's, for that matter) secret scattered past: Forty-six years ago, Leiber and Stoller gave to one Garland Emanuel--a blues harpist known and forgotten as Garland the Great--a frolicsome stomper titled "Strike a Match," about no more than a man unable to see his new sweetie in the dance-hall dark. Emanuel laid down a slow, sketchy demo, which sat in Leiber's closet till a decade ago, when he handed over the song to Friedman and told him to make it his. And he does, speeding up and slicing up the downer demo (finally available, as of August, on the Ace Records import Leiber & Stoller Present the Spark Records Story); no longer does it sound like a Howlin' Wolf reject, another grumbling blues song that drags its feet on the way to bottle's bottom. Friedman grins his way through the tune, hitting it fast and hard; the way he sings it, it's almost like he doesn't want to see his beauty, lest the light reveal her as beast. Might be a hit. In 1955.