There’s something about JD McPherson’s music that is elusive. Yes, its aesthetics are laden with throwback influences, faithful replications, and generic conformity, but there’s a sense of raging urgency—a distinctly contemporary urgency—that refuses such easy classification.
McPherson, along with a kinetic four piece band, brought this elusive sound to Liberty Hall on Thursday, June 23 as part of Lawrence’s Free State Festival. Playing to a small crowd of only about 150, McPherson’s band tumbled and roared through 80 minutes of bristling rock ‘n’ roll, ’50s rhythm and blues, rockabilly, and trashy garage-soul.
The group’s influences are easy to pinpoint—Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins et al.—but the group also recalls Freddie King, Bo Diddley, Link Wray, and the soul music produced at FAME Recording Studios in the mid-1960s. These influences give the group just enough variation and oddity to sustain interest for an entire concert-length performance. Songs like “North Side Gal,” were perfectly realized in the live setting and also exemplary demonstrations of the refreshing appeal of such out-of- time music.
McPherson’s growl is gutsy, and his guitar playing is frenetic and unruly, squalling and deliriously imperfect. His music is also impossibly infectious, bouncy, and made for toe tapping and whiskey drinking. While songs like “Fire Bug,” “Precious,” and “Let the Good Times Roll” found their inspiration in ’50s rock ‘n’ roll and Bo Diddley, other songs, like “Bridgebuilder,” recalled the blue-eyed soul of Dan Penn, or even latter-period Nick Lowe, whose “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day” was gracefully rendered by McPherson near the middle of his set. He was also willing to stretch his songs out and let them breathe, giving his raucous band the spotlight whenever the songs needed a bit more punch and kick.
The rhythm section of bassist Jimmy Sutton and drummer Jason Smay were consistently outstanding. Sutton’s thumping upright bass was always perfectly matched to Smay’s bass drum, giving songs like the scorching “Mother of Lies,” a heavy, unwavering anchor. Smay’s drumming is clearly rooted in jazz, and his swinging ride cymbal and double-stroke rolls were executed with blistering precision and an expert sense of timing and feel. Smay also demonstrated a light touch, most notably during McPherson’s faithful take on Jimmy Hughes’ classic 1964 hit “Steal Away,” the first song of a two-song encore.
It was perhaps a perfect distillation of what makes McPherson’s music so elusive. It is at once honorific and respectful, faithful in intent and execution, but also just a little bit cockeyed, a little bit chaotic and disorderly. It is within these two extremes—between the deferential and the discourteous—that gives McPherson’s music a distinctive charm—a charm glowing with retro influence but never succumbing to its demands of style and substance.
This is a good place for McPherson to reside, and one hopes he will continue to approach this music with the same gleeful abandon displayed Thursday night.