Breaking Down the Walls Luke Winslow-King's articulation of roots rock for a new generation
NEW YORK, NY — December sure can do a number on us, with end-of-year existential accounting and the often-inverse relationship between time spent with extended family and feelings of goodwill. My folks are on the other side of the Pacific, and ultra-long-haul flights leave ample time to contemplate miles traveled, literal and metaphorical. Fortunately, I had a very fine companion in the music of Luke Winslow-King, whose fluency in the idioms of Americana enables him to craft songs that feel both modern and timeless — electric blues informed by classic country, traditional jazz, and Memphis and Motown soul — an ideal soundtrack for wayfaring days.
Winslow-King’s latest album, Blue Mesa (Bloodshot Records), has critics exclaiming, à la Dylan at Newport, that “he’s gone electric.” It feels like a natural evolution, though, from earlier, more acoustic records. His style has always transcended genres, and the harder-charging electric sound of late simply references back to teenage days in Cadillac, Michigan, listening to rock ‘n roll on the radio and playing Hendrix and Stevie Ray covers. Winslow-King transmutes his varied influences into a modern amalgam on which the imprint of New Orleans, which he called home for more than a decade, is clear.
It’s an expansive sonic landscape to explore. “Born to Roam” has a playful swagger, while the steel and fiddle in “Farewell Blues” lend a warm counterpoint to the wistful lyrics, undergirded by a steady, driving beat (query whether don’t give your love to a highwayman is a Johnny Cash reference). The vibe of the Crescent City is present in the jazzy horns of “Chicken Dinner,” and LWK takes it all up a notch for tracks like the swampier “Leghorn Women” and the ZZ Top- and John Lee Hooker-evoking “Thought I Heard You.” The unhurried “Better for Knowing You” soars satisfyingly, the organ arrangement framing Winslow-King’s compellingly dusky vocals. And the title track “Blue Mesa,” accentuated by Roberto Luti’s poignant slide guitar, articulates a vision of roots rock for a new generation. While Winslow-King’s jazz and classical training serves him well, the supreme verve and flexibility of his playing never comes across as showy. It just is.
Earlier this week, Winslow-King and his band played a short but transportive set at Mercury Lounge in New York’s Lower East Side. Two members of opening band Making Movies — Juan-Carlos Chaurand and Enrique Chi — joined a few songs.
We were treated to new material — “Lissa’s Song,” written in memory of Lissa Driscoll, a New Orleans blues musician who was Winslow-King’s friend and collaborator (speaking to WYCE, he recalled that “she knew all the obscure verses to the songs that no one else knew, and knew all the stories behind them”). It’s an achingly lovely rumination on how a life well lived leaves imprints on those around you: ‘Cos you’re in every song now, in everything I do / and when I feel I’m sinking, I will reach for you.
During “You & Me,” a pair of concertgoers slow-danced in the middle of the floor. In the corner, an older couple sat with fingers entwined, quietly taking in the experience. Later on, mid-song, Winslow-King stepped out into the crowd, smiling as he clasped hands with fans. There’s endless magic in seeing a roomful of strangers coalesce in this way. It calls to mind the lines in “Blue Mesa” — Now the sun is high and blazing / Watch the shadows, ain’t it amazing how they disappear.
Sun and shadow, the world “After the Rain” — Blue Mesa makes effective use of familiar metaphors throughout. And we need metaphors — we need stories of new horizons and mending hearts. These days, the headlines are undeniably bleak: Australia burns, missiles fly, children are separated from their parents at the border. There’s a growing cohort of cynics who tell us it’s over, that it’s too late to save the planet from corporate greed and climate chaos. But this naive cynicism, as Rebecca Solnit wrote recently, “is the offspring of amnesia. Amnesia says ‘the way things are now is inevitable, change is impossible, change for the better is beyond our power.’ Memory says, not so fast: ordinary people massed together have changed the world again and again.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this — about finding the counterweight to cynicism and paralyzing despair. Maybe it’s a studied hopefulness, grounded in remembering our capacity for change and envisioning what change looks like. And there’s so much of that to be found in song: music is a repository of memories and a kiln in which we fire up the imagination to create a new storyline.
The arc of Winslow-King’s latest records demonstrates this. From the breakup behind 2016’s I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always to the loss of loved ones in 2018’s Blue Mesa (Driscoll, who co-wrote the opening track; and LWK’s father, to whom the closing track is addressed), there’s plenty of trouble and weariness with which this guy has to reckon. But he doesn’t linger on the bad — instead, Winslow-King reflects on breaking down walls and on the experiences that shape us (I’m thinking here of the languid grace of “Better for Knowing You”). And despite the metaphors of distance in these songs (my love’s like an ocean far away), when sung, they draw us close. There’s an intimacy and immediacy in the concert experience. And that provides incalculable value and solace in these troubled times.
Just past midnight on Christmas Day, I watched the city skyline resolve into points of light, and then into inky nothingness. As we climbed to cruising altitude, the engines settled into a lower hum. At that moment, “I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always” came up on my playlist. I don’t read much into coincidences, but it felt like a bracing reminder to keep moving. Keep moving, and trust that the passage of time will smooth out the jagged edges of heartbreak and loss into memories that we can touch without bleeding.
I like that song a lot. And I like how Blue Mesa is in dialogue with the rich and varied traditions of Americana, providing a clear-eyed rumination on the vistas we’ve seen and the ones yet to come. I hope you find everything you’re looking for out there.
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Pick up a copy of Blue Mesa here, and keep track of LWK’s tour dates here. He plays at the Folk Alliance festival/conference this week in New Orleans — you can find the schedule here.