Fred Wickham resurfaces from a lengthy lay off with a sparkling gem of an album, Mariosa Delta. The co-founder of the defunct roots rock band Hadacol journeys through the past to 1940, and finds the truth about a tragedy that struck his family. This is the second release from a Wickham this year; brother Greg Wickham dropped a solo record back in April.
The Mariosa Delta was a nightclub owned by Wickham’s grandparents. It was also the scene of a fatal shooting in 1940. “Newspaper articles confirmed that my grandfather’s brother Jim was gunned down by a jealous husband” Wickham relates in the liner notes. Wickham’s grandmother was the first to reach Jim, and he died in her arms at the Mariosa Delta.
Wickham takes that tale and uses it as fuel for thirteen new tracks of solid midwestern country tinged with a hint of Hadacol’s rockier edge. The story of that night, and the damaged relationship at the core of it informs Wickham’s take on love, marriage and mortality. Written at a time when Wickham was going through a divorce, and recorded with producer, mentor, and friend Lou Whitney, who was soon after diagnosed with terminal cancer, the song cycle examines the nature of relationship, and the myriad ways we get it wrong.
Taken as a whole, Wickham leads us to ask ourselves why we undermine our connection to the people with whom we fall in love. And he accomplishes that without ever asking the question directly. Rather, he paints a portfolio of moments captured in all their glory, and all their wretched flaws, and we are left to wonder how anyone ever gets it right. To his credit, Wickham offers no easy answers, choosing to let us sort through the rubble ourselves to gain what wisdom we can.
Of course, he does all this with stellar backing from some fine musicians. Hadacol bassist Richard Burgess is on hand, as is Sam Platt on drums and Joe Terry on piano and organ. Donnie Thompson turns in some excellent work on electric guitar. The album kicks off with “Big Fat Moon,” a song that sets the tone and sounds as if it came straight from 1940, replete with a saucy fiddle line courtesy of Dave Wilson. The listener could imagine this song coming from the old Victrola, as couples do their best on the dance floor.
“You Don’t Need Me” is a case study of two people with different perspectives on their relationship. Wickham’s protagonist meets his flame at the train station and immediately notices that something has changed. Observing that she looks “brand new” he instantly realizes that she no longer needs him, she has grown beyond their small-town romance. Standing there in that revelation, the narrator, with a single yellow rose in hand has no time to process the seismic emotional shift in which he is caught. The listener is drawn into the awkwardness of the moment, and identifies with the undertow dragging the central character down. The gulf that now exists between these two is impossible, they no longer speak the same experiential language, and Wickham’s character is on the losing end. Attempting to salvage some self-respect he decides on his course of action:
I’ll take your bag
And I’ll drive you home
I’ll leave you at the gate
I’ll go get stoned
The whole thing rides the rails on the perky bass line provided by Burgess and the steady drumming of Sam Platt. The melody feels bright and upbeat, like the narrator’s initial excitement, but the lyrics reveal the truth he doesn’t want to see.
“I Don’t Have to Like It” is another song about breaking up, again from the losing partner’s point of view. Wickham sings, “I can take it, I don’t have to like it.” The theme of being on the outside in a relationship resurfaces throughout the record.
“Mariosa Delta,1940” is the story song that describes the events that led to homicide and scandal. It plays out like a black and white movie. Jim sees Maxine and is enchanted with the way she lights up a room. The next thing you know Maxine is confessing about that midnight ride she took with Jim in her husband Artie’s car. Artie catches up to Jim at the Mariosa Delta and pumps him full of lead. Mission accomplished, Artie sits down and orders a beer. Jim, like Wickham’s other characters, misjudges his relationship, and in this case he pays for it with his life.
“Wedding Song” is a hoot. Told from the point of view of a former lover who obviously knows the bride better than her soon-to-be spouse, it also serves as a vehicle to let the band show off. Donnie Thompson takes the spotlight here and puts on a stellar performance, a clinic on how to do some fast country guit-picking.
The best track on the album is “Wish You Were Here Tonight.” It feels like a nod to The Band, and listening to it one could almost hear Rick Danko’s lonesome tenor. Melancholy, the song reflects the view of a man struggling to overcome loneliness and a broken heart. Joe Terry wrenches all the emotion out of the piece with his piano and organ work, and Wickham’s vocal is full of resignation.
Mariosa Delta is a great record, part document, part tragedy, all heartbreak, the album examines pain and suffering in relationship, especially the self-inflicted kind. The brothers Wickham have matured and the proof is in their songwriting. Following brother Greg’s earlier release, it leaves us with one conclusion. Clearly, it is time for the members of Hadacol to get off their collective backsides and go into the studio to record that triumphant comeback record. It is an opportunity to good to miss. www.theflamestillburns.com