I hate to say it but the first time I heard or heard of John Calvin Abney was last summer when he was playing with John Moreland at The Caverns in Pelham, Tennessee. They were opening for Scott Miller and I was beyond excited to see Moreland in a live setting but given his bare bones approach I did not expect he would have anyone with him. Sitting off to Moreland’s right was this curly headed “kid” who was wearing out his guitar. And by wearing out I don’t mean playing every note known to man but by just knowing what to play and, more importantly, when to play it. His style and skill took already excellent songs and transformed them into something …more. I hung on every note and I guess Abney gained a lifelong fan.
Flash forward to summer 2019 and I am listening to his upcoming album Safe Passage, out September 27th on Black Mesa records. The self-produced effort features John Moreland, Shonna Tucker and Will Johnson among the supporting cast of characters who helped bring Abney’s vision to life. That being said the quintessential sideman has stepped out front and delivered a damn near perfect album. It doesn’t sound like dustbowl Americana, Moreland or anyone else you may have heard him play with and I think it makes the album all the more interesting for it.
The first three songs are all immediately catchy and kind of set the tone for what follows. “When the Dark Winds Blow” is the track that really grabs me and refuses to let go. Abney’s voice is instantly warm and engaging and the track reminds me fondly of something The Band might have done. Harmonica and organ float nicely over and around the track and its positive spin on a moment never fails to leave a smile on my face. “Backwards Swing” with the steel guitar weaving in and out and Abney’s yearning voice may be one of the best tracks on the album. “Honest Liar” is the aural version of floating down a slow moving river somewhere in the deep south during the summer, just barely moving along.
“Days of Disconnect” has a layered vocal approach, 60’s pop drum beat, and elements that would find themselves at home on a Beach Boys track. It is unexpected but not unwelcome and may be one of my two favorite songs on the album. “Typeface in Bold” is one of those achingly beautiful songs that is delivered with just the right amount of instrumental embellishment. The vocals shine over acoustic guitar and a muted tribal drum beat, Abney is as gifted a singer as he is a songwriter. Following the lilting instrumental “Soft Rain After All” Abney closes the album with “Maybe Happy” which plays heavily in the indie influenced folk playground. Complimenting the previous nine songs this track could have easily found itself playing in the background during an especially poignant moment of Garden State. This is not a slight as I like that movie, but love the soundtrack.
John Calvin Abney delivered a remarkable album. He could have played it real safe, aping the offerings of bands/artists he has played with but instead chose to head in a different direction. I’d love to hear him take on the sad bastard style that Moreland revels in or the jump up rock and roll of Lee Bains one of theses days but for now I am excited for what Abney is doing. His talent and originality shine on every song, holding your attention throughout, a feat not easily accomplished in our 30 second attention span world. Check out the album and make sure to catch him when his tour hits your town this fall. http://www.johncalvinabney.com