Friday, September 15, 2006

Mitch Ryder's new record

Stewart Francke writes:

I just returned this morning from Tempermill, the studio in Ferndale where I've cut most of my music. I wasn't recording, not yet anyway; I was listening to my friend Mitch Ryder's new record, The Acquitted Idiot. Mitch & I have developed a close friendship since first recording together on House Of Lights ("Upon Seeing Simone") and then playing several live shows together.

Our friendship is a joy to me...I don't know what else to call it except a part of a realized dream. Being friends with one of your heroes is an unexpected point of arrival I guess; it's a great thing, knowing the guy behind the voice I grew up hearing as a defining voice for what was real, for what was exciting, and most of all, what was Detroit. When I moved here from Saginaw now 27 years ago, the name & image associated with Mitch Ryder was daunting to a young musician. He had cut some of the most exciting singles in history and was a dynamic, intense, sweaty presence on stage--an iconic figure. Hell, Bruce called him a hero and continually paid homage to him with his "Detroit Medley."

Then his "comeback" came around in '82 or '83, with John Mellencamp at the helm, another hit with Prince's "When You Were Mine," and further fodder for the legend. I now know him as a gentle, spiritual, ironic, humorous guy, with a marriage that works, and maybe saves him from himself (we share that, among many other things). He regularly tours Germany, where he's a God, and the USA, on packaged oldies tours in the summer.

He's among the three best singers I've ever heard in my life. Not only have his chops remained; he now has a bittersweet falsetto and a low end that can finish a phrase with stunning emotion. He records for a label in Germany, Busch Funk, but should be putting these records out--he's making them at a rate of nearly one a year--on a major US label.

Why do I say that? Because he's transcended his image, his legend and his "sound" and grown into one of the finest artists & songwriters we have working today. After a bundle of records over the years that rocked, he's returned to his spiritual & musical "home"--blues, R&B and gospel. As artists we're both lumped into what critics and fans call "blue eyed soul"--white guys making black music or working in black forms. But Mitch sings blues & R&B as well as anyone of any color, ever.

He made a record in the early 70s with Steve Cropper, Booker T, Duck Dunn, Al Jackson and the Memphis Horns (The MGs) called The Detroit-Memphis Experiment that is a strong part of my musical bible--a record I return to when I need to figure out who I am, where I come from and where I might be headed. It's a clear and inspiring map, every time. The singing, the grooves and the horn charts remain a standard of sorts for me.

Sitting and listening to The Acquitted Idiot made me think that it's somewhat of a followup, 35 years later, to The Detroit-Memphis Experiment. It begins with "If You Need The Pain," pure gospel, a seeker's song, a combination of the lament found in the Five Blind Boys and the social glue in Curtis's "People Get Ready." Full blooded gospel piano with Mitch's sanded clarion voice. The phrasing and sustained vibrato of a master. "You trust in the word of love and so you stay," he sings.

It ends with a bonus track, cut in 1969 with the Funk Brothers, called "Hit & Run Lover." The song is from the ill fated last sessions with Bob Crewe, where Crewe wanted Mitch to front a stylized big band and Mitch wanted to stay on course as an R&B guy, the white James Brown. Crewe won out, and the rest is history--Mitch's career took a deep plunge that took 15 years to rectify. The track is amazing--the best Motownish track to never be a hit. Except for the fidelity of the overall recording, Mitch's voice sounds the same, cutting through the band or howling above it with a falsetto scream. I was excited to hear a track like this, Mitch fronting the Funk Brothers; Mitch just said he's got a "whole record like that on a shelf at home."

The Acquitted Idiot is a record about pain, sin, sex, spiritual yearning and doubt, materialism, home sickness, forgiveness and faith. It's Teutonic in tone, because he's often singing for German audiences. Anthems follow parlor songs; waltzes bump up against a Christmas song sung in German. In that way it's almost a companion piece to Dylan's new "Modern Times" in its variety and acumen. That's where I put Mitch--up with his peers, writing and singing and making records on par with Dylan, Van, Bruce, Seger, or with Sam Moore and Jerry Lee Lewis. He's not resting; he's relevant, continually making new work, reinventing his own reinventions.

I left Tempermill quite moved, wondering about the perfectibility of humankind through music and understanding. You know the feeling, however brief it lasts...until the world's hard reality slams the door. But a record like this can always dent that reality; it's music to survive by.

I didn't think about the fairness of an artist like Mitch releasing records on small European labels and what passes for hit records these days. Then on my way home, I walked into a gas station and heard Uncle Cracker's remake of Dobie Gray's great "Drift Away." And he was basically talkin it, keeping the melody flat because he couldn't sing it, with no vibe, sense of tradition or articulation. Pretty shitty record. And I did get a bit dejected about how this business works today.

But that's for another day. Today I'm gonna let the gospel vibe and the floating falsetto of this record wash over me. I'm gonna let his ideas of life and death, sin and salvation--the big deal--move around inside my mind. It's the kind of music I love, songs concerned with what's true, right and real. Wish I could walk into a gas station and hear one of Mitch's new songs.

Stewart Francke
September 13, 2006