After the year Jon Dee Graham has had, it would be difficult to imagine that he would put out anything other than an introspective piece of work in his first release, "Full," with his new label Freedom Records.
"Full" should rightly have been the second coming of Joni Mitchell’s "Blue" after the year he had. Included in the year were an Internal Revenue Service audit (of a working musician…please IRS), being dropped unceremoniously by his former label New West Records, and having his son Willie diagnosed with Legg-Perthes Syndrome while at the same time his health insurance company filed bankruptcy.
But what looked like a deep hole became loving arms to fall into as the Austin music family and the supporters of Austin music came together with several benefits to help the Graham family through their medical crisis. Jon Dee, a man of quiet dignity, was suddenly pushed by friends to accept what he had been giving for many years – unconditional love.
So it’s with that year in mind, that one has to say maybe a couple of the slower songs could have waited until later, and one or two of the more introspective songs may not have been the choice to fill out what otherwise is another Graham roots rock primer. Up until about a year ago if you looked in the dictionary for roots rock, you would have seen a picture of John Hiatt. Now there is a picture of Jon Dee Graham.
No musician goes to the roots and delivers it like Jon Dee Graham. "Jubilee" opens the CD with a bit more pop and rock delivery. One of the slower, but more poignant songs on the CD, "Swept Away," deserved a little longer treatment than it got with the production here. Having heard the song many times live, the strength of the song is the dynamic swing from soft heart wrenching ballad to raucous double and triple guitar solos. Without the guitar solos featuring not only Jon Dee’s amazing guitar licks, but those of Michael Hardwig, the recorded version is a great introduction to the song, but leaves you wanting more.
The most inspirational song, and perhaps the best song on the CD, is the unabashed “promise” of "Something Wonderful Is Going to Happen." For a man who once used to wear a South Austin Optimist Club cap as a statement of irony, Jon Dee has come a long way in his appreciation of the world. The last year may have had something to do with it.
Four other roots rock songs – "Amsterdam," "Holes," "Bonaparte," and "Tie a Knot" make one marvel at Graham’s songwriting and performing talent – all roots rock to the core. The band is one of the most talented ever assembled as well. Hardwig is not featured enough. The Grammy-nominated guitarist, who also plays with Eliza Gilkyson, puts forth some of the tightest yet edgiest, across the fretboard leads on guitar and dobro.
Bass guitarist Andrew Duplantis, who splits duties with Son Volt, adds the magic rocking touch. John Chipman has become the anchor that Graham looks to for not only steady rhythm, but the soft as well as driving beats needed to make this sound complete. Also joining in on the CD are Mike Stewart and fellow Resentments, Scrappy Jud Newcomb and Bruce Hughes.
"Rosewood" and "Remain" are ballads that remain true to the CD. The three songs that ask for more than most listeners may be willing to give are the slower and more introspective "O Dearest One," "WCO," and "Beloved Garden."
The Mike Stewart-produced CD was recorded in three days in early 2006, but the spontaneity does not shine through as perhaps intended. The South Texas border-influenced song "Swept Away" with references to the Sonoran Desert and the flamenco-style guitar of "Dearest One" may have been a better pair of stylistic closers to the CD.
"Full" is similar to some previous Jon Dee Graham CDs, "Summerland," and "Hooray for the Moon," but not quite up to the mark of "The Great Battle." Maybe the stage is being set for the ultimate Jon Dee Graham CD, a live CD featuring lengthy solos and some of the loudest, pure roots rock around.