[21 March 2012]
For several years, the highlight of any Kevin Gordon show would occur when he performed “Colfax.” This self-penned tune about playing trumpet in the high school marching band under the tutelage of a black-skinned man in the South when the Ku Klux Klan pleasantly joins the spectators brims with sexual and racial tensions. Gordon tackles the issues of youth, small town life, and the promise of a better future with telling details that convincingly convey the time and place of past events as if they really happened to him. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t – it doesn’t really matter. He makes us believe it to be true.
Gordon provides impressive descriptions and examples to illustrate his case: from the pseudo-juvenile delinquent behaviour of having a classmate lock himself in the teacher’s office and blast Ted Nugent’s “Wang Tang Sweet Poontang” over the school’s sound system to the seductive way his clarinet playing classmate appeared to his eyes (“Thirteen going on 35 / Sexy in a hard way like a first cigarette / Or bourbon spilled on a bare thigh”). But this is a song, not just a story. Gordon has played this composition live with minimal accompaniment and with larger combos. He’s tested it for years (it’s been more than seven years since his last recording), and, now that he has committed the song to disc, he understands how to complement every minute of this more than seven-minute tale. He adds a strumming banjo, a throbbing bass, a wailing slide, an electric guitar riff, and so on, during appropriate places, so that the song sounds as polished as a diamond and just as cutting. He also knows how to end the piece, with a black female gospel choir joining him in singing inspiring words about looking “straight ahead” instead of looking back. The companion piece to “Colfax“, “Step in Time” sounds like one of those marching songs performed while coming back from a funeral in New Orleans. The larger point is to celebrate the present and acknowledge the reality of the past in which Gordon lived.
“Colfax/Step in Time” clocks in at more than 10 minutes in length and forms the centerpiece of Gloryland. Several of the other songs tell literate tales of observation about growing up and dealing with the evils of the world. Critics have compared Gordon, an Iowa Writers Workshop graduate, with that of the school’s most renowned student, Raymond Carver. They share an affinity for terse and gritty descriptions, but Gordon is a musician. His playing (as well as the artistry of those instrumentalists he has assembled around him) really knows how to create a groove and take the weight off the stories. Gordon’s is more comparable to the late, great Harry Chapin, who made you believe he was the protagonists of his songs even as the music took over from the lyrics at key moments to express emotions and spiritual feelings for which words seemed inadequate. Sure, their lyrics are important, but, in combination with the music, something more is expressed.
So on tracks such as “Trying to Get to Memphis” and “Side of the Road”, one feels the Southern landscape through the aural cues as much as the visuals one Gordon described. Gordon may have a felicity for language, but he also likes to rock. That’s what makes all 11 cuts move like a car speeding down the road to nowhere. You don’t know where he’s taking you, possibly even as far as the “Gloryland” of the title track. But you know Gordon’s always taking you somewhere, and the journey will always be more important than the destination.