By David McGee
Johnny & The Mongrels
If you’ve been paying attention over the years, you’ve heard plenty of lyrics referencing New Orleans in all kinds of music. The Crescent City, with a musical history richer than almost any other city in the world, is far and away the most name-checked Louisiana destination, with maybe Baton Rouge a distant second. On their debut album, Creole Skies (the first recordings we’ve heard from the band since its 2016 debut EP, You Ain’t Ready), Johnny & The Mongrels come out of the gate with a funky, swampy bit of southern soul titled “Louisiana Girl” in which songwriters (and band co-founders) Johnny Ryan and Jeff Bostic, teaming with former Gregg Allman Band guitarist Scott Sharrard (who co-produced the disc with JoeBaby at the fabled Dockside Studios in Maurice, LA), get extra points and catch your attention by mentioning not only New Orleans right up front, but in the same verse, in musing over the origins of the title character, speculate on her perhaps being a “New Iberian Queen” or “a pretty girl from Robaline.” Not that I’ve heard every single song about Louisiana that’s ever been written, but I cannot recall any lyric referencing New Iberia or Robaline, separately or much less together. Which means nothing if the song containing those citations is unremarkable. In fact, “Louisiana Girl” signals the ascendance of a mighty fine band into the front ranks of chicken-fried southern soul and swamp-rock. Its steady rolling groove, anchored by a solid rhythm section comprised of Bostic on bass and Eddie “the gift that keeps on giving” Christmas on drums as the foundation of a thick rich sound featuring Bill McKay’s tasty keyboard work and Craig Dreyer stepping in with a terrific tenor sax solo, all serving to complement Ryan’s clean, expressive tenor on lead vocal. As the opening track on Creole Skies, it sets the stage perfectly for the pleasures ahead.
‘Louisiana Girl,’ the opening track on Johnny & The Mongrels’ Creole Skies
Interestingly, Ryan and Bostic are based not anywhere in Louisiana but rather in Fort Collins, Colorado. Their mates on Creole Skies, apart from Sharrard, McKay (who’s logged time with both Leftover Salmon and the Derek Trucks Band) and Christmas (who’s worked with Jon Cleary and the New Orleans Suspects) include, in cameo appearances, Roddie Romero from the Hub City All-Stars; bassist Charlie Wooton of Royal Southern Brotherhood and Sonny Landreth fame; and Lee Allen Zeno, whose resume includes work with both Bobby Rush and Marcia Ball. Background vocalists include the formidable Erica Brown and Penny Lane. Marty Rifkin adds pedal steel to three tunes, and Bill Goss contributes percussion to the delightful “Music Man,” wherein Romero’s squeezebox adds that jubilant Chenier flavor to complement McKay’s channeling of Professor Longhair on the keys, all spicing up Ms. Brown’s salty vocal workout.
‘Drinking With Angels,’ Johnny & The Mongrels, from Creole Skies
‘Shallow Grave,’ Johnny & The Mongrels, from Creole Skies
Chenier and Longhair aren’t the only legends channeled here. One of the album’s deeper workouts comes on “True Life,” a midtempo blues featuring Sharrard on guitar summoning the piercing sound of B. B King (who recorded his finest late-life albums at Dockside in a final blast of creative brilliance before illness overtook him) in support of a forceful lead vocal by Roddie Romero hammering home, with earnest conviction, a message of self-affirmation, to wit: You never really know until you have the will to try/and if you don’t learn all your lessons/then your dreams can float on by/you have to open up the door to your true life…it’s so easy to take what you’re given/but so hard to get what you want…” In fact, the music from first cut to last has such an irresistible groove to it I fear listeners may overlook some serious songwriting going on in these Creole Skies. In a powerful gospel-drenched ballad, “Shallow Grave” (a Bostic-Ryan original), Ryan begins at an anguished point and elevates the tension from there in an incisive dissection of a seriously broken heart that’s left him almost fatally bereft: “I’m tired of feeling this pain/tired of giving in/I remember when I used to know how to win/I let it go before you took me down/I’m stranger to myself/buried in a shallow grave trying to find my way out.” Brown takes a heated verse of her own, Rifkin’s pedal steel swoops in down in the mix, McKay embroiders the moment with bluesy glissandos and the whole enterprise rises to an epic moment of despair. “Shallow Grave” actually forms the second half of a powerful one-two punch, following another gospel-rooted blues ballad, “Drinking with Angels,” a real cri de coeur built on Stax-style foundation with an exotic touch provided by the unexpected weeping Rifkin adds with his pedal steel—it’s kind of monumental, actually. It works because Ryan sells his story to the nth degree with a ferociously multi-layered reading born of equal parts inconsolable sorrow and sheer fury as he wails, “the only thing that makes me smile/is drinking with angels now…broke my heart when I heard the news…never know why you had to go…” As clear as those lyrics are on paper, the effect of Ryan’s performance is of hearing someone unabashedly bare his rawest feelings, his soul, at his most vulnerable moment. Clearly, in Johnny Ryan roots music has its newest great vocalist.
‘Music Man,’ Johnny & The Mongrels, from Creole Skies
‘True Life,’ Johnny & The Mongrels, from Creole Skies
This is not to suggest the long-player is drowning in its own sorrow. The above mentioned “Louisiana Girl” is certainly a spirited exercise; “Music Man” is jubilation defined; McKay’s assertive vocal on his own “Just Keep Walking” adds a bit of funk to the equation in its self-reliant message and sizzling Sharrard guitar solo to close things out on an uplifting note (too bad Gregg Allman isn’t with us, because you know he could really take this one home—as it is, it sounds like an homage to our fallen Brother). The band collectively kicks out the jams on the lone cover song here, a furious rock ‘n’ rolling take on Tony Joe White’s “Saturday Night in Oak Grove, LA” complete with a rousing McKay keyboard solo wherein Longhair meets Jerry Lee before Sharrard blows the roof off the sucker with his a merciless red-hot guitar solo. One could go on, but the point is, Johnny & The Mongrels make their presence felt profoundly on Creole Skies. Its strengths are manifold, its music meaningful and built to last, and Ryan as the messenger will not be denied. Creole Skies is operating on a whole different level, at once familiar, fresh and true to the human experience. When they sing and play, and it all comes together, you believe them. What a beautiful thing.