What is soul? It’s a question Danny Lee Blackwell has always known the
answer to. Over three albums as the creative force behind Night Beats, he’s shown that soul can mean more than just Sam, Otis or Aretha. That The Elevators, Gram, Lou, MC5, the Reid brothers and much more beside can all have that fire, that spirit and that passion burning within them. All you need to do is catch them right and refract the light just so.
However, while his other records haven picked up those coals and used them to fire a white heat of blistering garage rock, Myth Of A Man is the first time Blackwell has taken Nights Beats to a place where even a casual listener would pick them up file them right alongside the likes of Otis Blue, Dusty In Memphis, Nancy & Lee or Let It Bleed. In short, it’s an album that holds its own next to the classics.
That might sound hyperbolic, but that’s the sort of record we’re dealing with here. Don’t believe me? Stick it on. Listen to the organ sound shimmering through on Footprints. Listen to Blackwell’s playing as he rips into Stand With Me. Listen to that voice, the careworn rasp pleading from the speakers and hitting you right between the eyes. Listen to the gentle sigh of (Am I Just) Wasting My Time for chrissake. This is the ballpark we’re in here.
If it’s an album that sounds like it was cut just like records were cut back in those days, well, that’s partly because it was. Having come off the road from touring 2016’s Who Sold My Generation, Blackwell hooked up with Dan Auerbach, who suggested the perfect place for the next chapter of Night Beat’s story to take place: Nashville TN.
“There was definitely a conscious decision to expand and try things differently,” notes Texan native Blackwell, combatting pre-show jetlag with a straight whiskey and a side order of Red Bull.
“It was really important for me to do a lot of stuff that I didn’t have the capability to do before. That was a big thing for me on this record: making sure that I never felt too comfortable. It’s kind of like throwing yourself into the deep end when you can’t swim.”
It was a process that saw Blackwell taking his songs into the studio and working through them with some of the most seasoned sidemen in the history of rock’n’roll. Guys who had lent their chops to some of the greatest songs ever recorded. He may have not known where the tune might go when he clocked in each morning, but he knew he was with players who were going to take him there, allow him the space to find the song’s true meaning and open up avenues he could never have walked down alone.
“Working with these old school cats, they definitely brought an element where I could spread my wings. It sounds really simple, but it can get really muffled in a studio where you know exactly what you’re going to do and you know exactly who’s going to do what,” he recalls. “I always make the analogy to a book. There’s these empty pages, but if you have people that can read with you and choose your own adventure, then it’s really fun. I love that process. That bakes my biscuit right there.”
As an avid reader of the set texts, it could have been easy to feel overwhelmed in a situation like that. But having played with everyone from Black Lips to Ronnie Spector, Blackwell isn’t in the business of feeling overwhelmed. He’s in the business of picking up his instrument and seeing where he can go with the people he’s in the room with.
“It’s the same thing as working with anyone you highly respect,” he notes. “You’re like, ‘Whoa, where do I put myself in this situation? Am I just going to sit here and vibe out and be so into the fact that I’m doing it or am I going to take advantage of the situation and really bare my soul?’ And I chose the latter.”
The bruises on Myth Of A Man certainly aren’t covered up. It’s a record that has a broken heart, licks its wounds, falls in love again, gets its ass kicked, goes back into the fray and takes the punches once more. In other words, it’s a record about life and living it.
Setting the scene in a late night bar on the outskirts of town, Her Cold Cold Heart pours itself one more rueful tequila as the desert sun rises through the window. The next moment, though, One Thing struts into view like the baddest rooster in the yard. It’s precisely that movement that makes this such a satisfying record. You’ve got the four-to-the-floor, psych-soul swoon of There She Goes setting up shop next to the fuzz and twang of Eyes On Me, a no looking back getaway drive into the unknown future. Sure, Let Me Guess might show deep scars of regret and bitterness, but it feels right at home with something as open and tentatively hopeful as …Wasting My Time, surely the most beautiful song Blackwell has ever written.
Call it soul, call it rock’n’roll, call it what you like. For anyone who has had their ears open, those elements have always been part of the DNA of Night Beats, but here Blackwell has recalibrated them, slowed them down just enough and allowed them the space to breathe and exist as something new. It’s the same book, just a different chapter.