J. R. Shore is yet another one of those Canadian artists who sound as if they were born and bred south of the Mason Dixie line with four fifths of The Band being the premier example. Having played in several Canadian bands Shore moved to Nashville in 2004 before returning to Calgary, Alberta five years later. State Theatre is his third release since his homecoming and it positively hums and reeks of the South with echoes of New Orleans and his forebears, The Band, well to the fore.
Split into two discs the second one offers up eight covers of familiar songs including The Band’s W. S. Walcott Medicine Show, Neil Young’s For The Turnstiles, The Dead’s Deal and The Burritos Sin City. Sticking fairly closely to the original arrangements it’s entertaining fare with the standouts being excellent renditions of Tom Russell’s Blue Wing and John Prine’s The Late John Garfield Blues.
Disc one is all original Shore songs and it’s a measure of his talent that this is the one that’s been played most often at Blabber’n’Smoke. There’s definitely a Band feel to many of the songs here with a heavy emphasis on keyboards (played by Garth Kennedy) while the guitars can be bluesy or country-like and accordion, baritone ukulele and violin lighten the tone. Shore’s voice has an attractive drawl with echoes of Jagger, Randy Newman and Dr. John at times and his vocal performances command attention throughout while his writing encompasses historical tales and social commentary.
The album opens with the swamp blues of Holler Like Hell, a lengthy (six and a half minutes) growl of a song with that bristles with menace with Gospel undertones in the call and response chorus. A magnificent curtain raiser it steamrolls along with chugging guitar solos adding to its bile. Addie Polk tells the true tale of a 91 year old widow who shot herself rather than have her home foreclosed and while it starts off with an almost perky southern stride there’s a burning anger in the middle eight when Shore rails against the moneymen who force such calamity on folk like Addie. Poundmaker is another true tale, this time stretching back to the 1880’s as Chief Poundmaker of the Cree Nation is imprisoned and broken by the white man. A terrific and powerful ballad with fine piano and organ interplay and swooping slide guitars it serves to recall the pride of such men despite the rigours imposed on them and is an awesome listen.
Shore goes on to sing the praises of Charlie Grant, a negro baseball player on a song that has firm echoes of The Band with the kaleidoscopic whirls of the organ very reminiscent of that other Garth while Dash Snow retains the keyboard flourishes on a drug song that could have been penned by John Prine but sounds as if it was played by the Stones circa ’69. The Band influence pops up again with the sprightly keyboards and quickstep jaunt that is Jackie’s Odds about a gambler born to lose.
There’s more gutbucket blues on Spring Training before the barrelhouse piano of 146 introduces a Randy Newman like lament. The Ballad of Dreyfus wanders into Dylan territory as Shore ponders on the fate of Alfred Dreyfus who inspired Zola’s infamous J’Accuse letter. Capturing Dylan’s hectoring tone from the early seventies while the organ whirls and a fine coiled guitar solo erupts this sounds like The Band backing Dylan on Desire. The disc ends with a faux antique acoustic blues that crackles through the speakers but also crackles with the intensity that burns throughout the album. Overall its a compelling listen and well recommended.