John Fusco And The X-Road Riders – John The Revelator
Checkerboard Lounge Records
20 songs – 92 minutes
John Fusco is perhaps best known as a screenwriter, producer, and television series creator. His screenplays include Crossroads, Young Guns, Young Guns II, Thunderheart, Hidalgo, and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. He is also a veteran blues musician (Crossroads is partly autobiographical – the teenage Fusco did actually run away from his New England home to play the blues in Louisiana and Mississippi) Indeed, it was when Fusco was back in the Delta to film his recent Netflix hit, The Highwaymen, that a series of jam sessions with Cody Dickinson resulted in the debut album from John Fusco and the X-Road Riders in 2019. John The Revelator is a superb follow-up, featuring 20 songs spread over an hour and a half of great music.
It is perhaps unfair to start a blues review by highlighting an individual’s achievements in a different artistic discipline. For too many years, it has been all too common for rock musicians or film or television stars to try to show their love of the form by demonstrating conclusively that they cannot play it or sing it. John The Revelator is different. This is authentic, emotionally powerful modern blues-infused roots music, with splashes of rock, soul, pop and gospel, superbly played and all held together by Fusco’s weathered voice, quality musicianship and storied lyrics.
The album is split into two CDs, with a band that is split between Red State and Blue State musicians; making an articulate political point in these ideologically fractured times that music recognises no boundaries or borders. The Southern Chapter includes Fusco, who provides lead vocals and plays Hammond B3 and piano as well as acoustic guitar, and Dickinson, who plays drums, bass, guitars, dobro and electric washboard. Dickinson also produced the album at his Checkerboard Lounge studio in Southaven, Mississippi. Fusco and Dickinson are joined by two other stellar musicians to complete the Southern Chapter: Risse Norman on vocals and Ray Charles and Dr John alumnus, Sarah ‘The Bone Doctor’ Morrow on trombone. The Northern Chapter hail from Fusco’s Vermont home, and include ‘Magic’ Mark Lavoie on harmonica, Patrick Ross on fiddle, Kurt Pierson on lead guitar, Dennis Diego on bass, Spencer Perry on drums, Baby J and Dan Alario on saxophone, John Clinger on trumpet and Brickett Bailey, Cassandra Machia, Julia Simons and Rosalie Wasser on backing vocals. Special guests include George Walker Petit on guitar and bass and Ronnie ‘Baker Mon’ Klingsberg on harmonica.
Fusco wrote the vast majority of the tracks, but there is also an exhilarating cover of “John The Revelator” as well as Oliver Sain’s “Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing.” The tracks cover a wide spectrum of blues and blues-influenced music. At times, there are echoes of Layla And Other Assorted Loves Songs as the musicians happily chase after a muse, not just in Dickinson’s magical slide guitar playing but in the overall rejection of any obligation to remain within a certain genre. Both “Why You Chose Me” and “Good Money After Bad” have some of the sense of musical wildness that made the Layla sessions so memorable, while tracks like “Fools Fire” have a cinematic quality both in the musical dynamics but also in the dramatic lyrics. And then there are ballads like “Baby, Let’s Not Borrow”, which nods towards Bob Seger’s masculine sensitivity, the Eagles-esque country of “Motel Laws Of Arizona” and the upbeat soul/pop of “Jacqueline”. Bringing the intensity down slightly, “Snake Oil Man” and “Ophelia (Oh, I Feel Ya) both feature just Fusco’s voice and his piano organ.
The album is beautifully packaged in a gate fold sleeve (with cover art by Bobby Whitlock of Derek And The Dominoes fame), with a lyric booklet. All proceeds from sales of the CD will be donated to the HART Fund, so there’s really no excuse for not picking it up.