EPs are proliferating these days but few are as inspired and cohesive as two of 2013’s best, the Howlin’ Brothers’ Sun Sessions EP (reviewed in Deep Roots, November 13) and Christine Santelli’s Limelight ’69. For Ms. Santelli, whose 2012 long player, Dragonfly, justifiably earned Album of the Year honors in this publication, and introduced her as a serious singer-songwriter, Limelight ’69 is both a bridge between Dragonfly and her next full-blown studio effort as well as a reminder of how formidable she is fronting a hard-nosed band. This is not to say she abandons the singer-songwriter ethos; one of the songs here, “Poor Me,” was intended for Dragonfly but left on the cutting room floor as unsuitable for the direction that album took. It was a smart call because there’s a world of difference between her band version here and the solo acoustic treatment she gives it at her regular Wednesday night gig hosting singer-songwriter night at the PATH Café in Greenwich Village (which has become quite the hot destination on those nights, thanks to Ms. Santelli opening each night with a set of her own and then featuring artists as formidable as Lisa Mills, Ricky Byrd [late of Joan Jett’s Blackhearts] and Michael Gannon—sometimes all on the same night!).
In a mere five songs Ms. Santelli traverses emotions ranging from suicidal and homicidal to a plea for redemption to, ultimately, warm and tender love for someone just out of reach. It might be too much to read a spiritual quest into all this, but it’s not an unreasonable interpretation. Crazy, perhaps, but not unreasonable. In the opening cut, “Wouldn’t Be Wise,” a rugged, rolling and tumbling howl, she sings, “Jumped a train and I lost my life…Forty-one was the end of my days…” Forty-one is not an insignificant number in Christianity—it denotes the 39 lashes given to Jesus before his crucifixion plus the wound in his side from a spear and the wound from the crown of thorns. She’s singing from beyond the grave, looking back over an unfortunate run-in with a train—the song’s chugging rhythm led by drummer Matt Mousseau’s relentless, inexhaustible charge is positively arresting—and possibly regretting how she wound up in an impossible predicament. Which is followed by the aforementioned “Poor Me,” in which the singer finds her beau en flagrante delicto with another gal down by the fishing hole, shoots them both dead and asks, “What else could I do?” before descending into the self-pity of the title sentiment, singing same in a voice with just enough of an edgy swagger about it to let you know she’s not altogether conflicted about the whole deal. This then sets up “7 Sins,” which rolls out as a prayer—“Oh my Lord, want to change my wicked ways…lead me to the water, will you cleanse me of my sins?”—then very quickly becomes a desperate plea when Hugh Pool, on harmonica, and her great guitarist, Jason Green, kick it into high gear, with wailing harp and howling slide over Mousseau’s powerhouse drumming in an instrumental evocation of a soul at loose ends, an impression Ms. Santelli underscores in the searing earnestness of her petitions to the Lord.
AUDIO CLIP: ‘Closing Time,’ the final track on Limelight ’69. The group harmony era lives.
Then there’s the title track, “Limelight ’69,” in title, spirit and execution, summoning the glory that was/is Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” (long ago designated by Sam Phillips as “the first rock ‘n’ roll record”). In this context, however, are these wheels the means by which the narrator leaves the horrors of one life for the salvation of another? Or is it only what it is—a stomping, ferocious rock ‘n’ roll assault starring that timeless rock ‘n’ roll icon, a hot (as in fast and flashy, not stolen) car—and that’s that?
Whatever has happened over the course of these four songs, the end of the EP finds the artist in a more subdued, reflective, even melancholy moment inspired by ‘50s-style group harmony. “Closing Time” is her most beautiful song yet, equally inspired as it is by the Harptones’ “Sunday Kind of Love,” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ early gem “I’ve Been Good to You” and by Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk.” It’s simply a woman missing her stray lover, wondering if he might return on this day or that, and trying to keep the faith that he will find his way back to her arms. Jason Green enhances the mood early on with some Marvin Tarplin-style plucking ahead of a striking ‘70s-style soaring solo he crafts midway through, even as Brian Mitchell (Levon Helm’s veteran pianist) fashions heart tugging, bluesy discourses on the 88s. It’s the end of the journey, and though “Closing Time” leaves many questions unanswered, you get that that’s the point. There’s more to this story than this EP reveals, but its themes whet one’s appetite for what Christine Santelli has in store for her next full-length album. The beauty of Limelight ’69 is that you don’t have to buy any of your faithful friend and narrator’s cockamamie ideas about its narrative arc but can rather enjoy the tunes here as unconnected short stories—literate, engaging, darkly humorous in spots, certainly unabashedly romantic by the time the curtain comes down—and appreciate a fine songwriter at the top of her game.