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Powell St. John - On My Way to Houston

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Artist: Powell St. John

Album: On My Way to Houston

Label: Tompkins Square

Review date: Aug. 28, 2009

Powell St. John’s story looks a little like labelmate Peter Walker’s. During the 1960s, St. John was on the edge of great things – he was pals with Janis Joplin, wrote songs for the 13th Floor Elevators, and co-fronted a proto-roots ensemble with Tracy Nelson called Mother Earth – but never really got his career off the ground. Family obligations eventually obligated him to retreat into day-job anonymity. And like Walker, he has enjoyed a late-in-life comeback on his own terms.

Paradoxically, On My Way To Houston is very much an old man’s album even though it is probably not that different from anything St. John might have done had he recorded during those intervening years. It’s split between acoustic folk ‘n’ blues tunes that he could well have played at some college hootenanny in Austin during the 1960s and psych-tinged electric rock songs cut with his old buddy Roky Erickson’s post-Elevators band, the Aliens. And he touches on topics that likely interested him back in the day. There’s an ode to his first crush, a couple songs that protest governmental misdeeds, and three acoustic instrumentals played with a whimsy that reaches back before the dawn of rock.

St. John voice is cracked and a little uncertain, but it well suits his material, sounding just right framed by rustic, bluesy guitar and fiddle. Even in the mid-’60s, the man displayed latent geezerish tendencies; the chorus to one of the songs he wrote for the first Elevators album goes “You don’t know how young you are.” Now he looks back on his own young love and other people’s misadventures with wistfulness and amusement.

But St. John hasn’t forgotten how to rock. The record kicks off with “Hardest Working Man,” a hitherto unheard Erickson song that is studded with swell, fuzzy leads played by Duane Aslaksen, and “Song of The Silver Surfer” recalls the trippiness of yore even though it sounds more like the Seeds with Neil Young on lead guitar than the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.

The record closes with “We Were All Born Free,” which voices outrage over encroachments on civil liberties and the dimming of hope as bluntly as the business end of a baseball bat. St. John is still paying attention, and he isn’t looking through glasses tinted by nostalgia or old age.

By Bill Meyer

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