Old Dogs, Great Tricks

On the title song of his new album, Joe Grushecky explains, in his typically plainspoken but eloquent fashion, just what keeps him out there rocking as he pushes 70!

There is a place where I stand strong
There is a place I know right from wrong . . .
There is a place, and it's in my song.

His album It's in My Song (Schoolhouse ) is one of the highlights among new releases by aging but unbowed rock-and-roll lifers that we'll survey here. (Peter Wolf and Willie Nile, also in this group, have already been covered recently in these pages.)

Over his career, Grushecky has probably been known less for his own work than for his association with Bruce Springsteen, who has at various times played with, produced, and cowritten with him. But It's in My Song offers further proof the 68-year-old Pittsburgh rocker and teacher (yes, he still holds down a full-time day job) is not merely a poor man's Boss. The album turns out to be one of the finest achievements of a career that has never received the attention it deserves.

It's an unplugged affair, but the acoustic arrangements have a full-bodied feel, with accompanists providing keyboards, percussion, and saxophone, among other sounds. This allows Grushecky not only to provide fresh settings for some of his best older songs (only the title track and one other number are new) but also to put into sharper relief just how good a writer he is.

"Rockola" is one of the older numbers here, and it neatly encapsulates some of Grushecky's enduring themes - balancing rock-and-roll dreams with the reality of life as a husband and father, and finding salvation in the music even when it's a struggle. "No one could ever know how much it means to me," he sings. Actually, we do. It comes through in every note he sings and plays.

Garry Tallent,
66, is a charter member of the E Street Band, the bassist who has laid down the bottom behind the Boss for most of the last four and a half decades. Onstage, he is also the most unassuming member of the group. So his first solo album comes as quite a revelation.

Break Time (D'Ville ) is pure retro-rocking fun, as a '50s vibe pervades the irrepressible set. With a core band that includes Los Straitjackets guitarist Eddie Angel and guests such as Duane Eddy, Doug Kershaw, and Bill Lloyd, Tallent nods to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino while also taking excursions to the country and the bayou. As a singer, the raspy-voiced Tallent makes up in personality what he lacks in range, adding color to the clever and insistently infectious songs, all of which he wrote or cowrote and which help make these vintage sounds his own.

Dan Baird
, 62, hasn't changed all that much since he was fronting the Georgia Satellites in the 1980s and scoring the breakthrough hit "Keep Your Hands to Yourself." On Get Loud! (Jerkin' Crocus ), with his current band, Homemade Sin, the singer-guitarist is still cranking up the volume and delivering heavy riffage in a timeless, Stones/Faces vein.

It's meat-and-potatoes stuff, to be sure, but with Jason and the Scorchers' Warner E. Hodges on lead guitar, shooting off sparks against Baird's rhythm guitar, it never sounds like stale leftovers. It rocks, it rolls, there's a little bit of country, and it's relentless - "I'm a-coming like a freight train," Baird warns on "Nothin' Left to Lose." All that cutting loose leads to a generally liberating, good-time air, although numbers such as "Fairground People" and "A Little Bad Luck" also exhibit a distinct class consciousness, adding some extra bite.

(This hearty fare, however, could still have used some of the songwriting spice of Terry Anderson, Baird's former partner in the Yayhoos, who provided him with the Satellites' memorable "Battleship Chains" and the solo hit "I Love You Period.")

Eric "Roscoe" Ambel,
58, also played with Baird and Anderson in the Yayhoos, one line on an extensive resumé that includes stints in Joan Jett's Blackhearts and Steve Earle's Dukes, current membership in the Del-Lords, and a thriving career as an Americana producer.

On Lakeside (Lakeside Lounge 1/2), he works with producer and multi-instrumentalist Jimbo Mathus (who has a fine new album of his own, Band of Storms). If the aim is to display Ambel's mastery of diverse styles, the set succeeds.

Lakeside opens with the straight-up rock-and-roll romanticism of Scott Kempner's "Here Come My Love" before ranging to the country strains of "Let's Play With Fire" and the fiery punk of "Massive Confusion," both by Mathus, and the ominously heavy blues-rock of Ambel and Mathus' "Don't Make Me Break You Down."

At one point, a soothing take on Gillian Welch and David Rawlings' folk/country ballad "Look at Miss Ohio" - Ambel's voice recalls Neil Young in its higher end - segues into the brawny R&B of Barrett Strong's "Money."

On Mathus' "Hey Mr. DJ," Ambel, who will perform May 20 at the Record Exchange in Bordentown, N.J., sings from the perspective of a bar patron who doesn't want to hear anything he doesn't know. His comfort zone is really a dead zone. Which is one place you won't find Ambel and his fellow still-striving rockers. @NickCristiano

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