J.P. Harris, out of Montgomery, Alabama, regards himself as a carpenter first and a singer-songwriter second. That probably speaks to the precariousness of the music business nowadays, but on the conclusion of his set at Omeara tonight what gave most pause is the realisation that he’s a true craftsman in all the best senses of the term.
With three albums of material to draw on, including his latest release, ‘Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing,’ it’s actually some superlative cover versions that bookend tonight’s show. Starting out with a swaggering version of David Allan Coe’s ‘California Turnarounds’ the quality of the five piece band is evident from the off, with the Western swing of ‘Two For The Road’ from debut album, ‘I’ll Keep Calling’ close behind.
An unashamed traditionalist, J.P. advises the audience of his intention to play real country music and if we had any doubts on that score then he says we must have failed to read the small print. This prefaces a rousing version of the sad but wryly funny ‘Badly Bent.’ Those towards the front of the Omeara stage are reminded that dancing to J.P’s music is customary in the United States, and a number join in for the slow waltz of ‘South Oklahoma.’
“You guys want to hear a new song? That’s good cos I’m fucking playing it anyway,” he laughingly informs us before a rip-roaring and rollicking rendition of ‘Hard Road,’ the band totally rocking out on this number. By contrast is the tender, reflective side of his character with “the half true tale” of ‘I Only Drink Alone,’ while a feminist peroration precedes the intensely moving ‘Lady In The Spotlight’ – the latter a reflection on how much harder it is for women to succeed in the music business with the prejudice they face. The song is also a measure of J.P’s increasing confidence and willingness to experiment – the diversity of so much of the material on the latest record one of its abiding strengths. It’s also his ability to essay the transition between the more boisterous, upbeat material and the contemplative “apology” songs, without any mawkishness or sentimentality, that is so impressive. Music as catharsis is an overriding part of J.P. Harris’s muse and if you’re going to apologise to those you’ve hurt for your “piss poor” decision making in life then you couldn’t do it in better, or more classy, style. That applies in equal measure later on with the gorgeous rendition of ‘Miss Jeanne Marie,’ with the spotlight here on J.P. in both a literal and metaphorical sense.
Two absolutes highlights from ‘Some Dogs Bark At Nothing,’ follow: the sardonic humour of ‘When I Quit Drinking’ and the gonzo-infused, road-tripping delirium of ‘JP’s Florida Blues.’ Meanwhile, ‘Jimmy’s Dead and Gone,’ Harris’s own take on a freight train song which references the hobo, itinerant part of his life also namechecks one of his musical heroes, Jimmy Martin. The lyrical thrust of: “I received my education on the freight trains of our nation” perfectly encapsulates his upbringing, spirit and philosophy, while the song itself fair rattles along – not unlike the trains on which he used to hop – with some frenzied pedal steel accompaniment.
We’re then asked whether we want to hear, “A sad song or a really sad song.” The nakedly autobiographical ‘Runaway,’ which documents Harris’s decision to leave home aged 14, falls into the second category and is Harris at his most exposed. It’s also a stone classic.
While most of his musical heroes may be dead or gone, there’s one notable exception in the form of Terry Allen, so perhaps it’s no great surprise that ‘Amarillo Highway’ gets the nod tonight. The Tough Choices should seriously consider a covers album at some future point such is the pedigree of their song choices and playing ability: other notable numbers being the outlaw inspired ‘Lonesome, On’ry and Mean’ and AC/DC’s ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock’n’ Roll)’– a fired up version that would have had the rhythm section of that band’s Malcolm Young, Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams nodding along with approval. Deceptively simple, yet rock solid and never wavering in intensity or groove would be one way to describe the AC/DC back line, and it’s a summary that could as readily be applied to the Tough Choices – Justin Mahoney on guitar, Thomas Bryan Eaton on pedal steel and keys, Miss Tess on bass and Ryan Ewell on drums – all integral to this barnstorming performance. I’m sure Mickey Newbury would also commend their rendition of ‘Why You Been Gone So Long’ which helps act as a finalé.
Clearly not the most prolific of songwriters, J.P. Harris’s output of around 8 to 10 songs a year would never fit the Nashville factory songwriting mould, but ultimately it’s quality not quantity that counts. What, after all, makes J.P. Harris a great craftsman? Diligence? – check; inspiration? – check; application? – check; integrity? – check. In truth, he has these attributes in abundance. As with his workaday professional life, Joshua Pless needn’t worry; he has the musical gig nailed as well.
Earlier on, the Miss Tess duo had helped warm up a chilly Omeara venue with songs from her latest album, ‘Baby, We All Know’ – their classic R&B, swamp pop and early rock ‘n’ roll perfectly exemplified with the swing of numbers such as ‘Ride That Train,’ ‘Going Downtown,’ and ‘Moonshiner.’ It would be great if she’s able to bring the full version of her band, the Talkbacks, over at some future point.