Many will know Bob Neuwirth as a friend and road manager of Bob Dylan, whom he first met at a festival in 1961. However, Neuwirth was also a musician, songwriter and painter of considerable talent. He co-wrote ‘Mercedes Benz’ with Janis Joplin and Michael McClure, with Joplin recording it just three days before her death.
As a musical solo artist Neuwirth’s output was patchy. His debut album was decent enough and featured such high-profile guests as Kris Kristofferson, Chris Hillman, Dusty Springfield, Booker T Jones, Don Everly and Iain Matthews but failed to make the impact that his label, Asylum, had hoped for. The record company blamed Neuwirth for failing to publicise it sufficiently and he left the label. It then took Neuwirth 14 years to follow it up with 1988’s ‘Back to the Front’ which was well-received, and he (relatively) quickly followed it up with ’99 Monkeys’ in 1991, another decent but unremarkable record. Neuwirth’s next release was ‘The Last Day of Earth’ (1994) a collaboration with John Cale which quite frankly borders on the unlistenable.
It was therefore something of a surprise when in 1996 Bob Neuwirth released ‘Look Up’ by some considerable distance his best record. It was a stripped back collection of mostly Neuwirth originals described in the sleeve notes as “A modern day field trip to visit friends wherever they happened to be – Europe, Texas, NYC or Tennessee – to make music and take its picture”. Neuwirth visited friends and recorded with them, in some cases using an 8-track home studio, and in others a 2-track portable. Each track was recorded ‘live’ with no or minimal overdubbing. The result was magnificent, with Neuwirth in the best voice of his life, performing a set of excellent songs with a long list of friends that included Peter Case, Rosie Flores, Butch Hancock, Bernie Leadon, Gurf Morlix, Elliot Murphy. Mark Olsen, Chuck Prophet, Charlie Sexton, Patti Smith, Billy Swan and Victoria Williams alongside many well-respected studio and session musicians too numerous to list.
All but three of the sixteen songs on the album were written solely by Neuwirth or were co-writes with artists such as Peter Case, Billy Swan and Patti Smith. The three covers are all great interpretations of songs by The Delmore Brothers, Bobby Charles and Nan O’Byrne’s ‘Sweet and Shiny Eyes’ best known through Bonnie Raitt’s version. It’s probably not necessary to run through each and every song here, not least because it would be rather tedious. Much better to listen to the tracks below and hopefully follow up by listening to the whole thing.
‘Look Up’ probably wouldn’t appear in too many listings of ‘Classic Americana Albums’ but to these particular ears, that’s something of a travesty.