Jon Dee Graham/Andrew Duplantis; July 5, 2011; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music
For the first time in many years Jon Dee Graham is actually able to sell all his records at his shows. New West has refused to repress early classics like Summerland and Hooray for the Moon, and they have long been out of print. Hooray for the internet, because of that he was able to find copies in Russia (or so the story goes). Not that it matters much to me since my collection is already complete, but the good part about it is that not only can other folks round out their collections, but it seems to have reminded him about all the great songs on those records that haven’t been getting much attention in recent years. And he spent much of his second set remedying that. After spending time in bands like the True Believers and playing guitar for other artists, his first solo release was Escape from Monster Island. Many of the songs are about his relationship with his young son, like “$100 Bill,” poignant without being sappy. But head and shoulders above the rest of the record is “Airplane” and its short lead-in track “Wait” often played together live.
I’ve said many times that “Airplane” is the song most likely to make me cry, but not because it is sad, no, simply because it is so amazing. The emotional heft of that song can feel like a punch in the stomach, and Jon Dee knows it which is why that was the selection from Monster Island tonight. It had been far too long since I’ve heard it live. Summerland, his second record, was my introduction to him. He was opening for the Gourds at the long-gone O’Cayz Corral and I was much more interested in him than in the main act. It’s hard to pick a favorite from that record, but if I had to, it would be “October” the song they played tonight. “Bury me in a pile of dead leaves,” the song opens, his growl of a voice sounding like autumn itself, before he posits “tell them I died of October.” When they reached Full, his fourth record, there seemed to be some inter-band debate over which track to pick. “Tie a Knot?” I suggested. Apparently I picked a winner, and the rip-roaring sea shanty was next up.
It wasn’t all a trip down memory lane of course, and songs from his most recent release It’s Not as Bad as It Looks figured heavily into the night. The title comes from the first words Jon Dee said to the state trooper who found him after his car went off the road between Dallas and Austin. Even though Jon Dee’s weary pessimism is part of his charm, he’s a lot more optimistic than he would like us to believe. Songs like “Lucky Day” have a happy to be alive charm, which of course he is. “This might actually possibly be my lucky day,” he claims after finding five dimes heads up on his dresser at the Motel 6. Later he names off the songs on the radio like a good luck mantra, “Neil Young, The Who, The Clash all in a row.” Of course, it isn’t all sunshine, but he skipped the tear-jerking “I Said.” The record’s opening track and tonight’s opening song “Beautifully Broken” is another winner, even if it isn’t as positive.
This was Jon Dee’s fifth appearance at the house, and it was drummer Joey Shuffield’s fourth. But despite the fact that Andrew Duplantis has been playing bass with him for ten years, it was his first time in the basement. He took advantage of it by asking if he could do an opening set. I’d only heard Andrew play solo once before, and it had been years ago. These songs were more interesting than the ones I’d heard then, probably influenced by his very happy marriage and his young son. In fact the lyrics to one of the songs he played were written by his wife, and Andrew challenged himself to write a song around it. After he finished it, she gave him some advice about how to play it. While he initially resisted, it turns out she was right.
Each Jon Dee show in the basement has been an occasion. After five shows, he definitely deserves the title of “favorite uncle,” um, long story. Tonight though may have been his best show yet. Song selection, band, audience, all added up for a truly amazing show. I know I say that all the time, but everyone in attendance agreed. I can’t wait till he comes back again.
Jon Dee Graham & the Fighting Cocks