When Ghost Light burst onto the live music scene in 2018, it was immediately evident that the quintet were a rock ‘n’ roll force to be reckoned with. With lead guitarist Tom Hamilton from Joe Russo’s Almost Dead teaming up with keyboard phenom Holly Bowling (who’d made a name for herself with her solo piano versions of Phish songs as well as becoming an acclaimed bandmate with Phil Lesh & Friends), fans knew this group was going to throw down some stellar jams. But the largely unknown wild card that propelled Ghost Light to even loftier heights was singer/rhythm guitarist Raina Mullen, whose soaring vocals gave the band an extra element for sonic alchemy.
Ghost Light’s debut album Best Kept Secret didn’t make as big a splash, however. It had a handful of great tunes that had been road-tested, but the band didn’t make every track count. That shortcoming has been rectified on Ghost Light’s sophomore album, The Healing, which features one compelling track after another. The album also includes a handful of killer jammy synergy and wastes no space.
Hamilton and Mullen wrote all the songs and seem to have cracked the code here, as the creative electricity is evident on each track. Ghost Light’s guitar-driven 1970s rock sound dazzles the senses, thanks to an extra level of psychedelia and a 1990s alt-rock aura provided by Mullen’s powerful voice and compelling presence. This generates a fresh 21st-century sound since it’s hard to think of another band that mixes these elements together.
Drummer Scotty Zwang is great at mixing up rocking beats with swinging accents, teaming with bassist Dan Africano (since replaced by former Turkuaz bassist Taylor Shell at the beginning of 2022) to form a dynamic rhythm section that really adds an extra level to the sound. Then there’s Bowling, who helps provide the psychedelia as sort of a secret weapon with her sonic tricks.
The title track kicks off The Healing with Hamilton and Mullen teaming up for the vocals on a song that blends sharp riffs and harmonies on an exploration of the often difficult path to personal wholeness. “Sticking with it. Staying the course in the face of adversity, uncomfortable conversations, or situations. The path to health and healing is often not the path of least resistance but the path of perseverance and doing the work,” says Hamilton of the song at the band’s website.
The album soars to the stratosphere on the next two tracks, as “Faces in the Moon” and “Take Some Time” find Raina Mullen staking a case as a Tier One rock goddess for the modern age. When the band debuted “Faces in the Moon” at the Troubadour in Los Angeles on the opening night of their spring 2022 tour, there was a sense of hearing an instant classic as Mullen dazzled the audience with what felt like a shamanic delivery of a medicine women connecting with the cosmos. That vibe is re-captured in stellar fashion here, as sonic sparks fly.
“Take Some Time” continues in a similar direction, as Mullen keeps her mojo working while seeming to channel classic rock influences such as Grace Slick, Stevie Nicks, and Ann Wilson. This track also provides a better sense of what Ghost Light is really all about in the live setting, as Bowling opens up a cosmic wormhole with some psychedelic synths and Hamilton melts face with hot riffage to power the song higher.
“Up Here Forever” is another showcase for Mullen’s bluesy soul searching as she sees a ghost in her mirror while lamenting how the Earth is burning and decides to hit the road. Her voice is downright mesmerizing on this track and the band sets her up just right to shine like a haunted angel on a mission of redemption. The track completes Side A of The Healing in a climactic fashion and it feels like Ghost Light are pitching a perfect game.
“I found a lot of freedom, and new parts of my soul, in writing these songs,” Mullen reflects at Ghost Light’s site. Mullen and Hamilton seem to have had some demons to face down on these songs, yet there’s a cathartic vibe in the performances thanks to Mullen’s urgent vocals and the electrifying arrangements in Hamilton’s production of the album.
The instrumental interlude of “Opening Credits” kicks off Side B by building up some heady vibes before Ghost Light deliver another infectious gem with “Sweet Unlimited”. It’s another song that hit with the feel of an instant classic when it debuted at the Chapel in San Francisco on the spring tour, a roller coaster tale of turbulent interpersonal affairs. Yet Mullen once again finds her way to the mountaintop when she sings, “I am the sky where the mountains meet, you are the dream that the dreamers dream.”
There’s more sweet bluesy catharsis on “Dig a Hole”, as Ghost Light craft a compelling sonic landscape that they traverse in skillful fashion. It leads to another big peak when Mullen bursts out emoting on how what keeps you safe may also keep you down. This is a woman who clearly isn’t going to be kept down, as the outburst kicks off a smoking jam with Hamilton wailing like every note is going to help break down the walls of fear.
“Don’t Say Goodnight Just Yet” wraps up The Healing with a transcendent feel-good groove where it feels like Mullen is transforming from dark angel to goddess of light. She’s still navigating some rough ground “on a constant walkabout”, but she doesn’t want to say goodnight just yet since “the sun’s about to rise”. Is it a metaphor for keeping the faith in a better world on the horizon? It feels like it is. This is also where Bowling finally gets to really shine, as her dynamic piano playing syncs with the groove for some extended improv to power the song to sonic heights that just aren’t possible for bands that don’t have amazing keyboardists.
If there’s one thing to critique on this album, it’s how Bowling seems to have been underutilized. Sure she’s playing for the songs, but it feels like the coach kept her on a short leash for much of the game. Her performance on the last track provides a strong taste of Ghost Light’s compelling live sound, where most songs receive extended exploration. Yet unlike many jam bands, Ghost Light has the songs to make those jams really count for something more.
If Raina Mullen and Ghost Light had come along around the turn of the millennium, they probably would have rocketed to stardom and platinum album sales what with the widespread exposure that MTV gave to videos from up-and-coming bands. But that was then and this is now, so Ghost Light will have to do it the old-fashioned way – with relentless touring behind great albums like this one.