10 songs — 44 minutes
Born and raised in southern Mississippi, but based out of the South Side of Chicago, Justin Howl is a true throwback performer. Despite his home base in the belly of modern blues, he delivers an all-original set that ranges from acoustic to electric while capturing a feel that existed in music 70 or years ago.
Howl migrated to the Windy City in the mid-2000s to attend graduate school at the prestigious University Of Chicago. Although he’s recently been touring the U.S. as a soloist, he and the Salty Dogs have appeared regularly in greater Chicagoland since forming in 2011, performing tunes that are rooted firmly in the pre-War sound even though the songs were penned four or five generations after its heyday.
The lineup ranges from a four-piece band with Justin on vocals, guitar and harmonica, backed by a second guitarist and rhythm section to an acoustic guitar/harmonica duo. Regretfully, information regarding the other musicians is lacking. They’re only listed by their first names in the literature: Martin on drums, Matthijs on bass and Tim on second guitar with guest appearances by Lynn on violin and Bennie on six-string for one cut each.
Howl’s material deals far more with the land of his upbringing than it does with the bright lights and big city. Despite its title, “Streetwise” kicks off with a dog howl and gong. It’s a country-flavored number played on six-string banjo that describes freezing to the bone and sitting at the side of the road beside everything the singer owns wrapped in a burlap sack. A strong singer, Justin’s voice still possesses a slight hint of the bayou. The only things he requests are that you don’t stand in his sun and that you sit down beside him so he can give you a piece of his mind.
A harp intro kicks off the two-man acoustic “My Voodoo Lady,” a bright tribute to a woman “who’s specially made for me/She ain’t no hand-me-down,” before the medium-fast “Dear Daisy,” a musical letter, serves as an apology for non-appearance because the writer’s currently serving time behind prison walls. “The judge took 15 seconds,” he says, “to give me 15 years.”
Next up, “Shara Mae” gets the full electric band treatment as it asks a woman why she has her red dress on before things calm down again for the acoustic blues, “God-Forsaken Road.” A sprightly harp line accompanied by finger snapping kicks off “Going Somewhere,” an announcement that the singer is leaving his cheating woman behind, but quickly evolves with an electric, full-band arrangement.
It’s acoustic banjo and Jew’s harp for “Jesus Was A Hobo Man,” which is delivered somewhat like Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” before Howl shows off his yodeling skills on “Boxcar Waltz.” A tune that could have been written in the ’30s, it’s a ballad of loneliness while riding the rails. The set concludes with “Poor Farmer,” a country blues, and “Wino’s Plea,” which comes across with the feel of an old-time Scottish/English reel.
Available through CDBaby or directly from the artist’s website (address above), this album will strike a chord with you if your tastes run to old-timey blues. Although there’s some inconsistency in the presentation as the ensemble switches from one format to another, Justin’s tunes are worth a listen and are intelligent throughout.