Self Release through ShakeDown Records
14 tracks / 66:39
There are plenty of slickly produced records out there, but there is something special about a release that is recorded live in the studio with limited postproduction. It allows the listener to hear what an artist really sounds like, and Lightnin Malcolm’s Rough Out There delivers an accurate snapshot of exactly what this man is capable of, and his abilities are impressive.
Steve “Lightnin” Malcolm is originally from Missouri, but as a teen he took out for the juke joints of Northern Mississippi where he worked relentlessly as a solo artist. With no other musicians to hide behind he had to sink or swim, so he persevered and learned how to fill a room with his voice, a guitar and some basic percussion. Of course there were great roles models out there, and he learned from the best, including R.L. Burnside, Honeyboy Edwards, and T Model Ford. Once he got his feet under him, he began collaborating with legendary artists including Cedric Burnside and the aforementioned T Model Ford as well as performing with the North Mississippi Allstars.
Rough Out There is Malcolm’s sophomore release and he took a few chances with it. Besides recording most of the material live in the studio, he also changed things up by bringing in a few friends to fill out the sound, plus all fourteen of the tracks are originals that were penned by him and a few of his buddies. But most importantly, these songs represent a variety of genres that are rarely heard together in one package. On this album Lightnin provided the guitar and vocal parts, and a pair of drummers split the time behind the kit: Cam Jones and Stud (Carl White), who happens to be T Model Ford’s grandson.
The opening track, “Working,” is a driving blues rock tune with heavy guitar work from Malcolm and sweet slide guitar from Luther Dickinson, his Allstars bandmate. Lightnin has a raspy vocal delivery that works well for this material, and he doubles it nicely with his guitar lines, which the listener will find to be a recurring theme throughout the album. He also takes the blues rock route on “So Much Trouble” and “Took Too Long,” whose lyrics support two of the usual blues causes: bemoaning the terrible state of the world and telling the woman that did him wrong to go back where she came from.
Things are not so cut and dried when trying to categorize the rest of Rough Out There, as Malcolm is adept at mixing varied genres into new creations while never losing touch with his hill country roots. But, when it comes down to it, isn’t most modern music somehow evolved from the blues? “My Lifes a Wreck” has a bit of rockabilly in it and “Dellareesa” has a Latin/island feel with well-arranged horns courtesy of David McKnight and Marc Oran. Their sax and trumpet can also be found on “Mama,” his modern take of the classic 1970s funky rhythm and blues songs.
Lightnin pushes the envelope further by adding in reggae with “Reality Check” and two hip-hop songs: “Rough Out There” and “How Blessed You Are;” the latter includes auto-tuned vocals interspersed with his rap musings, which is obviously not something that is usually found on folk or blues records. This is quite a contrast with the Delta-tinged “Young Woman, Old Fashioned Ways,” the pedal-steel soaked country song, ”Givin You Away,” or “Chiefs,” a native American-influenced instrumental. He seems to be redefining folk music by including a little something from most every kind of folk you will find in the U.S.
Rough Out There goes out on a limb with its amalgamation of genres and its mixture of traditional and modern sounds, but this collection works when it is looked at as a whole, as it has a consistent feel throughout. Perhaps it is because the two drummers have very similar grooves and Lightning Malcolm is such a seasoned performer who knows how to please an audience. Or maybe it is because he had a hand in writing all of the songs and the album was recorded the old-fashioned way with live studio tracks. Either way, he has delivered the goods here, and it is definitely worth a listen.