Artist: John Kilzer
Album: Hide Away
Our Verdict: 8/10
Release date: Out now
Label: Archer Records
Find it at: Archer Records store
Review by: Graeme Blackwell
“…this is raw, open and honest songwriting of the highest order.”
In case you hadn’t heard, there’s a new Dr.John in town. Only this one doesn’t come from a background of New Orleans jazz, blues and zydeco, but rather a rich tradition of Memphis roots, rock and soul. This here is not the one and only Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack. No, the Dr. in question is the equally gifted John Kilzer, a US singer and songwriter who just happens to have a doctorate from Middlesex University to boot.
Let’s not get our knickers in a bunch about fancy bits of paper, though. We like to concern ourselves with music here, and all the degrees in the world don’t count for much if they aren’t used in service of the art. Fortunately for Kilzer, his extraordinary journey means he’s doing just that.
Signed to Geffen Records as a young man and releasing 1988’s Memory In The Making and 1991’s Busman’s Holiday, Kilzer quickly found himself sliding in to a fast living lifestyle that he simply couldn’t maintain. Despite his obvious gifts in crafting beautifully realised character-driven story songs, and a rich gravel voice perfectly suited to his writing style, Kilzer was soon lost to the shadows of non-sobriety.
He never gave up writing, though, and whilst battling back through recovery and returning to his studies, other high profile musicians benefited from recording his songs. Roseanne Cash, Trace Adkins and Maria Muldaur have all, amongst others, included Kilzer’s writing on some of their most accomplished collections of songs.
But now the good Doctor releases his own body of new work titled – ironically enough – Hide Away.
Steeped in Memphis music history, Hide Away is a hearty, full and heart-warming melting pot of styles, taking in influences across the spectrum of folk, blues, gospel, rock and soul. From the mirk and mire of the thwack and wallop of “Graveyard Jones”, through the roots-fuelled rocker of opening track “Lay Down” and on to the crystalline piano-led power of “California”, this is raw, open and honest songwriting of the highest order.
The tones and textures used to convey the depths of Kilzer and his characters are equally masterful. Searing electric guitar, sax lines redolent of some of Memphis’ greatest players and box-stomp beats that stir the soul; all help to serve up a platter that is almost impossible to put down.
Perhaps it’s little wonder, given the level of skill on the part of Kilzer’s fellow musicians who lend their not inconsiderable talents to the disc. Steve Selvidge, currently playing with Minneapolis’ finest The Hold Steady, offers up his six strings and vocal chords; The North Mississippi All-Stars’ Luther Dickinson and folk-blues firebrand Alvin Youngblood Hart join on guitar and lap-steel, and they’re all held together by the beats of drummer Greg Morrow (Sara Evans, Sheryl Crow, Big & Rich). It’s a stellar lineup by anyone’s standards, and such is Kilzer’s reach and draw.
Lyrically, thematically, it’s perfectly possible to see how Kilzer has drawn deep from his own, hard-won well of experience. Hide Away concerns itself primarily with fully rounded characters, hanging on to their last vestiges of humanity in the face of overwhelming odds. The spiritually and economically downtrodden plead to anyone who will listen: “Uranium won’t feed the poor” they spit on “Lay Down.” And in “Babylon”, judging fingers are pointed firmly in the right direction: “You think God can hear your prayers / You ignore their hungry stares.” It’s quite clear that here is a man who has been to the bottom, and hasn’t forgotten what that feels like as he has clawed his way back up.
Skillfully drawn, written with aplomb and providing a masterclass in Memphis music history, Hide Away is a consummate return to form from a musician who’s light is clearly yet to go out. John Kilzer, it’s good to have you back.
Keep up to date with John Kilzer’s music via his official Facebook Page.