At 78, Jerry Lee Lewis doesn’t have to make records anymore. His reputation as one of the earliest rock ‘n rollers has been cemented for eons now, but here he is with yet another album, one of several he’s issued in the last decade. Predictably, it’s a welcome release from The Killer. Lewis rubbed shoulders with most of the cats who wrote the Great American Songbook, and his ability to deliver his renditions of tunes that fall squarely in that category is impeccable.
The always-brilliant Jim Keltner takes co-production duties here, finding suitable partners for Lewis across the album’s 11 tracks. Jon Brion and Shelby Lynne are two who represent a younger generation of musicians while Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Neil Young, Ivan Neville, and many more represent rock’s great past. Keltner and co-producer Steve Bing know where the sweet spots in the star’s voice are and so they champion that and his piano playing throughout, starting with the opening “Rock & Roll Time”, right through to a beautiful take on Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land”, which closes the album.
His take on Bob Dylan’s “Stepchild” is particularly impressive. The tune is an unlikely choice from the Dylan oeuvre, but Lewis owns it with an authenticity that stretches the imagination. He’s joined there by Daniel Lanois and Doyle Bramhall II (Bramhall appears on no fewer than three tracks), who offer the equal balance of presence and quiet admiration. It’s that balance that suits the affair best as Neil Young and Ivan Neville offer it in an equally powerful take on “Bright Lights Big City”, which also registers as one of the albums most freewheeling moments. It’s fun to hear the track cast in a contemporary setting and yet sounding as if it were recorded closer to the time it was written. The presence of Nils Lofgren and Robbie Robertson on “Folsom Prison Blues” offers us not only a new career high for Lewis but for those supporting players as well. And Wood and Richards help remind us all just how much “Little Queenie” can turn a listener’s ear inside out. (It’s also reminiscent of Keith’s work on Johnnie Johnson’s great Johnnie B. Bad).
Keltner’s drumming is also a perfect match for the songs and the singer. The veteran studio musician has played with everyone under the sun it seems and is in tune with classic (i.e. early) rock drumming which involved the perfect balance of rhythm and a flair for melodic sympathy. He is the driving force behind the band and his skills, as shown here, seem only to grow sharper with each passing year. His ability to play in any genre and both not call attention to himself and alternately make you appreciate the true importance of an able time keeper places him in the pantheon of national treasures.
Because this is an album from a man of such reputation there is no room for faltering and so the record’s short running time and exemplary sequencing are two of the album’s greatest strengths. “Sick and Tired” is equal to “Keep Me in Mind” in greatness as are “Blues Like Midnight” (an excellent turn from Robertson again) and Lynne’s chance to shine, “Here Comes That Rainbow Again”.
It hardly seems possible to consider that Jerry Lee Lewis would put anything less than his best foot forward, but we know the tales of wildness and excess but what gets lost in all the rubbernecking and footnotes as the years past and his visibility is sometimes less than it once was is how great a musician he is and how lucky we are to still have him.
Rock & Roll Time stands as one of his greatest and one of the greatest of this year.
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