Gospel Hopes

T Bone Burnett, The Other Side, Verve Forecast, 2024
Peter Case/Sid Griffin Europe Tour, What’s Cookin’, London, 1 May 2024

T Bone Burnett has had a fascinating career from Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder backing band and a Vineyard Fellowship worship band through the under-appreciated Alpha Band and a critically acclaimed solo career which, nevertheless, played second fiddle to his in-demand work as record producer to an ever-expanding network of roots and rock musicians. In the latter role, he has kickstarted careers or expanded and deepened the oeuvre of established artists while working with the likes of Peter Case, Bruce Cockburn, Elvis Costello, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, Sam Phillips and Gillian Welch among many others, and has brought renewed awareness of bluegrass, country and folk through popular film soundtracks.      

Don McLeese has written that ‘Nobody writes better about surface and depth, illusion and essence, through parable and paradox, than T Bone Burnett’. The apposite scriptural contrasts of ‘Trap Door’ and the twists and turns of the short story that is ‘The Strange Case of Frank Cash and the Morning Paper’ bear that judgement out, although on some more recent recordings the complexity of his work and thought has, at times, become somewhat impenetrable and abstruse. However, the simple and straight-ahead but affecting is also very much within Burnett’s range and, perhaps, never more so than when he is closest to country styling, as on the self-titled album T Bone Burnett.

His latest, The Other Side, could, perhaps, be seen as a companion piece to that self-titled triumph as it contains many of the qualities Jon Young and Brad Reno have identified in the earlier album i.e. a sparse, largely acoustic country affair with songs that tend to be more personal than preachy.

Paradoxes are never far away in Burnett’s world and we are treated to a particularly compelling list in ‘Everything and Nothing’ including:

     Everybody wants to know the truth but nobody wants to hear it.
     Everybody has to face the end but nobody wants to get near it.
     Everybody wants peace but nobody wants to surrender.
     Everyone lives in the past but nobody seems to remember.

Burnett has spoken of a dystopian dream he has had repeatedly over the years which shapes his understanding of societal trends and digital developments in particular. The paradoxes he notes are one of the ways in which he describes societal challenges, at the same time that he writes characters seeking renewal, restoration and reconciliation in the midst of a cruel world:

     The pain of love comes over you
     From above over no virtue
     A rain of dreams to pursue
     And another lover to notice you
     The pain of love comes over you

In this world,

We are like gods / But we are not gods’ as ‘We can create / And we can destroy’. In the midst of this paradox of duality, we long for those who go away to ‘Come back / On the wings of the morning’ although we are better to get over our loss now as we will have to do so someday anyway. Into this world of toil and trouble, a messianic figure comes down – one who is Moses-like in that he happens ‘onto a tree of flame’ and one who is Christ-like in that he is ‘hung from a tree’ – in a necessary incarnation.    

In an interview from 1982, Burnett stated that he could either write songs ‘about the light’ or write songs about ‘what he sees because of that light’. He has consistently chosen to do the latter with The Other Side being the latest compelling example.

Peter Case was among those whose career received Burnett’s support and input; his debut solo album being part-produced by Burnett and with four of the songs involving him as a co-writer. Case’s songs ‘about sin and salvation’, in which reflected ‘a personal, musical, and spiritual upheaval’ through which he found himself ‘Unravelling the mysteries of music’, became ‘the opening salvo of a new singer-songwriter movement that would become known as Americana.’

While his earlier career had been in cult bands The Nerves and The Plimsouls, from that point on and for the past 30+ years he has primarily been a solo troubadour in the tradition of Guthrie, Seeger and Dylan because, as John Hiatt once told him, ‘When you play solo, it really plugs you into the worth of what you’re writing.’ An amusing raconteur with a fund of fascinating stories from his early life (some of which show up in songs like ‘Entella Hotel’), Case draws on the traditions of folk, blues and country to write songs ‘about people left in the cold by a society built for winners’.

In Leytonstone, as part of a European tour with Sid Griffin, Case opened with songs – ‘Every 24 Hours’ and ‘On The Way Downtown’ – that reflected the turning world’s capacity for renewal and second chances. Drawing on his roots, we were treated to covers of Memphis Minnie’s ‘Bumble Bee’ and Sleepy John Estes’ ‘President Kennedy’, that drew on both the drive and the lament of the blues.

Case switched from guitar to piano for his latest album Doctor Moan and part of his set highlighted those piano-based songs, with a jazz influence adding to the mix à la Dr John. ‘Downtown Nowhere Blues’ jauntily documents our propensity to fall out one with another; at the ‘Round-the-Clock Diner on a weekday night / Big T and the gang try’na start a fight’, ‘They crowd around the table and the room gets tense’ as ‘You know we don’t get along’.

Trouble is the starting point for many of Case’s song, as in ‘Have You Ever Been In Trouble?’, but is not always their end point. Here, after praying in desperation, the Holy Ghost is felt ‘Coming down the alley / Just like a megadose’ and ‘There’s freedom down the bending avenue’ as the ‘one thing I know for sure is real’ is that ‘The moment you surrender / The wounds begin to heal’. This is where the evening concludes, in a duo with Sid Griffin on banjo and the hope of something ‘Beyond The Blues’:

     Beyond the shadows, beyond the rain
     Beyond the darkness and all the pain
     When you’re walkin’ in circles with holes in your shoes
     Love is the road that leads beyond the blues

This sense of emerging from the troubles of life into a space and place where love is both the road and destination is a perception and goal that Case shares with Burnett, as both draw deeply on roots traditions that tap Gospel hopes of coming home and being found on the other side.




Jonathan Evens






This entry was posted on in homepage and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.