Take a ride along the banks of the Mississippi River, pull up a stool in any St. Louis blues joint and talk will soon turn to the musician who’s giving the city its soundtrack. Jeremiah Johnson’s towering reputation has been hard-earned. During a two-decade rise, his triumphs have been accompanied by struggles and scars – not to mention the solitude of a life in motion. But those hard knocks have forged him as an artist, and now they feed into Straitjacket: the warts-and-all masterpiece that gives it to you straight. “This album is original American rock ‘n’ blues with southern-fried soul,” explains Johnson. “I just close my eyes and feel the music go through me…”
Few are better-qualified to commentate on modern America’s melting pot of people, cultures and musical genres. As Johnson reminds us in the autobiographical groove of 9th & Russell, the bandleader cut his teeth in St. Louis, then honed his craft in Houston, where he won the Regional Blues Challenge for three years running. But it was the return to home-turf in 2009 that truly planted Johnson’s flag, as he hit the stage at the iconic Hammerstone’s blues bar and spliced the two cities’ musical palettes into his own searing original material.
Since then, there’s been victory in the 2011 St Louis Blues Society Challenge, acclaimed albums including 2014’s Devon Allman-produced Grind and 2016’s genre-hopping Blues Heart Attack – not to mention the Ride The Blues documentary that painted a candid portrait of Johnson’s bitter-sweet rise. “Let’s just say I’ve had my days with drugs and alcohol,” he nods, “and it took me a long time to get a grip on it.”
In 2018, Straitjacket wears Johnson’s soul proudly on its sleeve. Produced by St. Louis’s favourite son, Mike Zito, at his Mars studios in Texas, the calibre of the lineup of Frank Bauer (sax/vocals), Benet Schaeffer (drums) and Tom Maloney (bass) demanded that these songs were captured on the floor. “We went for a live feel,” says Johnson. “There are a lot of places I could have played a more perfect solo or sang the lyrics more precisely, but in the end it was perfect left alone. Real, human, breathing, imperfected perfection.”
Served raw and searingly honest, these songs examine Johnson’s history, headspace and place in the world. He can be playful, on the title track’s hectic funk-blues complaint to a controlling girlfriend, or the grooving Dirty Mind, about a lover calling up for “a little company” at 2am. But elsewhere, personal moments like Keep On Sailing bleed into the social commentary of Believe In America and Old School. “Keep On Sailing is about realising the people around you are only there because of the drugs and booze,” he explains. “Believe In America is about seeing people struggling with money and a government that keeps leaving us small people behind – but I also see people who still have faith in this country. Old School is probably the most important song on this record. In my childhood, we got in fights, lessons were learned and we all walked away with our lives. Today, people pull out a gun…”
There might be storm clouds on Straitjacket, but the record ends in a ray of sunshine, as a cover of Alvin Lee’s classic Rock ‘N’ Roll Music To The World sees the band flex their astonishing chemistry and enjoy the ride (“We just cranked it up and let it fly”). The man himself hopes that you will do the same: “I want people to let this record play from the first to the last note, crank it up at a party, zone out while driving or riding through the night on a Harley-Davidson. I want this record to make people feel like throwing it in and going on a trip of emotion…”