[27 September 2009]
30 years after his move to Germany to find acceptance in a market that responded to him, 40 years after the hits he still has to lean on to get a job in the United States, Mitch Ryder can still deliver the goods. Air Harmonie, a live recording from his 2008 European tour, finds the rock legend in top form throughout a thirteen-song set recorded at a show in Bonn, Germany. Backed by his German band Engerling, Ryder peppers the set list with favorites old and new but they all sound fresh and vital. Despite introducing himself as “from Detroit” (as if no one in the audience would recognize him), Ryder has been touring Europe annually and has always played shows deep in catalogue, and this one is no exception. (It’s a far cry from his stateside profile, where his few appearances have been relegated to oldies shows like Hippiefest.)
Engerling is tight and versatile and an excellent match for Ryder’s material, with guitarist Pitti Piatkowski a particular standout. On leadoff track “Moondog House”, he flaunts a greasy slide riff that would make David Lindley jealous, and his flashy fretwork on “Long Hard Road” and others is extremely tasty. But what is most impressive is Ryder’s voice, a better instrument now than in his heyday. He can still shout and wail, but his timbre and control make him a far better blues singer at sixty-four than he ever was before. “All the Fools It Sees” and “The Testament” are soulful and pleading, and the pain expressed in these songs of mistrust and abandonment might have deeper roots in the truth than he’s willing to admit. They are mesmerizing.
Two tracks are from his last American release, Never Kick a Sleeping Dog, the 1983 album produced by John Mellencamp. His cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” is a live staple and as much his song now as is Lou Reed’s “Rock ’n’ Roll” (also in this set). But the live version of “The Thrill of it All” is a revelation. Where Mellencamp buried the track in echo and handclaps, Ryder is able to dig into the meat of the song and really drive it home with a fiercer arrangement. The Detroit Wheels days are represented by a spirited “Jenny Take a Ride”, which leads into the expansive set-closers “Take Me to the River” and “Gimme Shelter” (another long-time concert favorite). Those not familiar with his vast catalogue will no doubt be surprised by the jazzy honky-tonk that permeates both “Yeah You Right” and “The 21st Century”. It’s a well balanced, masterfully performed set of songs that must have been a thrill to witness in the flesh. I’m thankful it was captured for posterity.
Air Harmonie was released by BuschFunk, Ryder’s German label also responsible for his two most recent studio efforts The Acquitted Idiot (2006) and You Deserve My Art (2008). He also recently recorded new material with producer Don Was, and the result (tentatively titled The Promise) is slated to be his first album in his homeland in over a quarter-century. America doesn’t know what it’s been missing all these years, but between this live album and the prospect of that new one, they’ll soon have the chance to kiss and make up with one of the true legends of rock music.