“When you said that I could do to you whatever I wanted, I wish that I had been more creative.” As far as opening lines go, you could do a lot worse. That line begins “South of South”, a raw, greasy slab of rock ‘n’ roll worthy of Ian Hunter but performed by Jerry Joseph and the Stiff Boys and available on Joseph’s new odds ‘n’ sods collection of outtakes and live cuts called Tick.
Jerry Joseph has seen some things. His songs reflect that. You can hear the miles in his charred vocals as well as his world-weary lyrics. Life has been rough on him, but he’s been rough on life, too, battling demons and addictions many of us know all too well and that others are lucky never to meet or experience. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, Joseph has set out to do his part to make the world a little brighter. He’s taught guitar and set up music classes in places such as Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East. He’s also as fierce a rocker and an incisive and literate songwriter; rare – or at least rarely acknowledged – bedfellows.
Based in Portland, Oregon, but with strong ties to Athens, Georgia – the storied southern college town that spawned such enduring bands such as R.E.M., the B-52s, and Widespread Panic – Joseph has been touring, recording, and releasing albums for over 30 years, acquiring a devoted and eclectic following along with way. Among those followers are Widespread Panic (frequent champions of his material over the years) and Patterson Hood.
“The Stiff Boys” is the nom de plume of Hood’s band, Drive-By Truckers, who backed Joseph on 2020’s acclaimed The Beautiful Madness, for which Tick serves as a clearing house of sorts. Half of Tick are tracks fully recorded for those sessions (at Drive-By Truckers bassist Matt Patton’s studio, Dial Back Sound in Mississippi) and a couple of newly-discovered demos (by Stephen Drizos – producer and drummer of one of Joseph’s other bands, the Jackmormons – at his home studio). The other half of Tick consists of live versions of Beautiful Madness tracks that find Joseph and the Truckers – I mean – the Stiff Boys, at full throttle. The set was captured at one of Drive-By Truckers’ annual HeAthen Homecoming shows in 2020 by producer David Barbe.
Tick kicks off with the intense and infectious title track, one of the two demos (the other being the anthemic “Sometimes a Great Notion”), with Joseph and Patterson Hood (who served as producer on The Beautiful Madness) making their acoustics ring while offering an ominous warning of time – and possibly life – ticking away. Of the studio numbers, “Quiet” addresses a novel concept in today’s world, learning how to shut up and listen, while “The Mountain” (co-written with Patton) is the closest this project comes to adult contemporary pop. One could almost hear Neil Diamond belting this one out on a hot August night at the Greek. Almost.
The live side is, in a word, fierce. Live from Drive-By Truckers’ adopted home of the 40 Watt Club in Athens, The Beautiful Madness tracks are delivered with pure punk rock energy and rock ‘n’ roll abandon. While familiarity with the studio versions doesn’t hurt, it isn’t required to be swept up in what is one of the best rock shows caught on tape in quite a while. Here, versions of “Sugar Smacks” and a sweat-drenched-Stones take on “Bone Tower” are expanded, deepened, and pummeled into submission. The Truckers never fail to rock out, but it’s quite a treat to hear how their playing compliments other artists. Check out their work with Bettye LaVette for another example of a great rock band stretching their muscles. Joseph’s genuine excitement and admiration of his backing band throughout the set are contagious.
As a collection of leftovers and live cuts, Tick takes you on a journey far beyond what you expect, but it’s precisely the type of project a punk troubadour like Jerry Joseph has earned and deserves.