Authentic heartland rock by a truly gifted songwriter.
Michael McDermott is over thirty years into his career which started just as heartland rock was being overtaken by americana as the home for roots rockers. His music is a perfect fit for this now jaded term due to the quality of his songwriting which is informed by his own real-life experiences, and those of others, and an honest style of music to bring his lyrics to life. He started his career in the folk venues of his native Chicago, and while his music garnered early critical recognition, he has remained a true working musician whose career has had its challenges, and he has had to face up to the challenges of daily life that his potential listeners also face. There is the whiff of the concept album around ‘St. Paul’s Boulevard’ because it is a loose series of songs about the inhabitants of a fictional street and their daily challenges. Whatever the genesis of the album and its construction, it is also possibly the best album of Michael McDermott’s long career.
Just because an artist’s style bears comparison to a music legend, in Michael McDermott’s case it is Bruce Springsteen, doesn’t negate the value of his own artistic statements and specifically the quality of his songwriting. The musicians helping on ‘St. Paul’s Boulevard’ include McDermott’s wife Heather Lynne Horton on violin, roots rock sideman extraordinaire Will Kimbrough on all things stringed, leading Chicago keyboardist and arranger Vijay Tellis-Nayak, Matt Thompson on bass, Grant Tye on guitar, roots rock guitar slinger David Grissom, Danny Mitchell also on piano, and co-producer Steven Gillis plays drums.
The songs that McDermott has recorded this time are informed through personal experience but given shape by the imaginary inhabitants of St. Paul’s Boulevard. While there are certainly big problems in the world, here the problems that are being explored are those that everyone experiences in daily life. It is about disappointment and shattered dreams but also about resilience and how people pick themselves up and keep trying. Following a spoken word introduction, the opening track ‘When The Light Gets In’ sets the overall tone of the album with its ultimately positive message that light will eventually reach even the darkest places. Next ‘Our Little Secret’ is a reflection on the casual liaisons that touring musicians can have. McDermott brings another perspective to relationships with ‘The Arsonist’ which celebrates the woman who helped him modify his wilder behaviour. ‘New Year’s Day’ and ‘Meet Me Halfway’ continue to explore the dynamics of relationships. Breaking free of the challenges of daily life is a repeated theme with titles like ‘Sick Of This Town’ and ‘Pack The Car’ but one is a ballad while the other is a lively defiant single. He looks at the challenges posed to Chicago residents by those who have succumbed to urban vices in ‘The Outer Drive’. If anyone was in any doubt, Michael McDermott and his band can rock out when they want to as on ‘All We Have Lost’ and ‘Dead By Dawn’. Will Kimbrough’s mandolin brings a lightness of touch and a sense of hope to the final track ‘Paris’.
There is a real craft to Michael McDermott’s songwriting and his lyrics are clear and to the point, avoiding the traps of over simplicity and pretentiousness. ‘St. Paul’s Boulevard’ is real music played by musicians who care about their art and the fact that the music may not break new ground as Dylan or Springsteen did in their formative years is not the point because ‘St Paul’s Boulevard’ is good enough to stand next shoulder to shoulder to any album of real music released over the last few years. Michael McDermott’s fans will love this album and if you are new to his music then this is an ideal entry point. This is an album with a concept that works.
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