Even if John Waite’s name isn’t instantly recognisable to you and his earlier rock bands, the Babys and “supergroup” Bad English (formed with Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain, both founding members of Journey), appear as a distant blip on your musical radar, the songs he penned, especially FM staples like “Isn’t It Time”, “When I See You Smile”, and “Missing You”, will have you immediately bopping along in recognition of what is quite likely the soundtrack of your youth. (Of course, this will be true only if you were old enough, or wise enough, to have tuned in to rock radio in the late 1970s, spent your formative years constantly watching MTV where these million selling hits were in heavy rotation, or are the proud owner of a greatest hits compilation of the 1980s.)
His latest studio album, Downtown Journey of a Heart, sees Waite revisit these classic tunes, along with two new tracks—including an excellent, screeching R&B cover of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61”—and a collection of his lesser known songs. All are recorded in a refreshing stripped-down acoustic style that dispenses with the over-produced synthesizer sound popular in the 1980s, reminding the listener that his musical roots are firmly grounded in the British rock and blues scene of the late 1960s. With the back-to-basics sound of guitars, drums, and Hammond organ complementing his blues-inflected vocals, there is more than just a taste of his early inspirations the Faces, Humble Pie, and Free on the majority of these cuts.
However, it’s the melodic rock of Tom Petty that opener “The Hard Way” brings to mind, an infectious rocker that begins with a driving guitar riff and a plaintive rebel yell from Waite before leveling off to focus on the unreliable nature of young love in the American heartland. A truly great way to start any album and possibly the reason why he decided to include it here after initially releasing it as the opening title track on his 2004 studio album. From here on in, things become less predictable, as Waite’s acoustic interpretations of his hits offer up some very welcome surprises. “Missing You”, a number-one ballad in 1984 and ode for his wife at the time, and possibly the best known hit of his 30-year career, has had the bubblegum-synth-pop veneer removed and been returned to us as a straightforward country duet that could open doors in Nashville. Similiarly, Bad English’s heavily orchestrated “When I See You Smile” has also been countrified with twanging acoustic guitars, vocals straight from the heart, and understated Hammond organ. Only the rousing pop anthem, “Isn’t It Time”, a top-20 hit stateside for the Babys in 1977, comes away generally unchanged, with just the horn section missing from the original production, leaving it sounding dated and lacklustre in comparison.
Elsewhere on the album is a pleasant mixture of intimate pop ballads providing simple boy-meets-girl story-songs that are primarily set in the Big Apple (“N.Y.C. Girl”, St. Patrick’s Day”) and bluesy melodic rockers (“Key’s to Your Heart”, “Headfirst”). However, the highlight of the record is its title track “Downtown”, taken from Waite’s 1995 album Temple Bar, which combines both ballad and rocker. A lilting piano accompanies Waite’s lonesome voice as he describes a personal journey full of misgivings about the future and longing for the past before the song transcends the expected bleak ending in an uplifting squall of electric blues guitar and, most importantly, hope. Which is definitely something this record holds in abundance for a musician who seems to have his downtown-bound heart set on making a comeback by rediscovering his past.