I was driving down the highway for my first listen of One More Crooked Dance and barely made it through the second song when I could sense something was very different. By the second note of the third song I screamed out “John Sebastian!” and slammed the steering wheel. Right ... but that wasn't it. A few songs later I had a breakthrough and realized that the right-handed guitar played upside down by the left-handed singer-songwriter was missing and six strings were replaced by 88 keys. The man unplugged himself.
These days when you rely on streaming to get your fix, there is no 12 by 12 album cover to stare at or liner notes to read. You either just don't care about the credits or lyrics, or you hope a trip to the artist's website will take care of that. Except Jules Shear doesn't really have an active website that promotes his latest release, and his record label is uniquely mellow in their marketing approach. The thing is, unless you're one of a few thousand people who follow his Facebook page, you might not even know that this past November he stealthily released his 13th solo album, with 13 new songs sprinkled with his special magic dust.
That video was created by visual artist Sherry Wallace, a fellow Jules fan who has posted dozens of interpretations of both his solo work and collaborations, many with his wife Pal Shazar. You may recognize her name from her own band Slow Children, or for her beautiful artwork such as the oil painting titled Jules from 2014 that I chose to feature at the top of this column. She is a warm and gracious woman, and over the years we've met twice and emailed often, and it was through her efforts I managed to get a few words about the album from Jules. Before I get to that, here's the basic background on One More Crooked Dance that you'll find repeated verbatim at places such as Amazon, Spotify, and Apple Music:
Jules Shear isn't being cagy when he insists he doesn't know what the songs on his 13th studio album, One More Crooked Dance and first since 2013's Longer to Get to Yesterday are about. He really doesn't, at least without being able to consult a lyric sheet, which is nowhere in sight at the moment. With nary a guitar, bass or drum in earshot, Shear didn't have to wander far from his longtime Woodstock, N.Y., home, corralling locals Pepe (piano), touring partner Molly Farley (vocals) and the legendary John Sebastian (harp) at his neighborhood health food store and somehow cajoling them to join him at his friend’s nearby home studio. (Spotify)
Obviously we know Sebastian, and his Woodstock neighbor Happy Traum filled me in that Pepe was a local who played around town. Jules wrote to me that “Molly has gone on the road with me singing background vocals. That's everybody on the album, except for Lee Danziger. He engineered and we worked in his studio, which is just five minutes from my place. I just wrote the songs until I gave up, and then we recorded them. Lee was very cool with recording everything. Pepe wailed. It gave it a vibe.” When I asked about his lack of internet presence and promotion, and whether he had a sense of himself at either being semi-retired or the reclusive musician living in the mountains, he replied “I guess, at this point, I don't have a self-image. I just wrote a bunch of songs.”
Molly Farley owns Rock City Vintage, formerly called Sew Woodstock, a clothing boutique featuring a curated collection of one-of-a-kind vintage, designer, and original pieces. When I asked her about the album, she wrote, “It has been such an honor to work with Jules on this album. He is one of my all time favorite songwriters. I love the simplicity of piano and voices. I hope it gets heard by the world! Pep and I have worked together for many years and yet he remains kind of a mystery man. I know he was raised in Forrest Hills in Queens and is a self taught pianist. His knowledge of all types of music is profound. Perhaps he could fill in the blanks for you.”
Pepe responded to my email quickly with his phone number, but as the holidays came and went I got tangled up with the day job and put it off. But he did share this: “Call me and I'll explain everything. Love to talk to you about it. Jules just put an obscure collection of chords in front of me on a piece of paper. No vocal...no melody....no guitar...no piano.....no nothing... and said "Play". So I did.” When I asked for more information about himself, like his full name, he replied “Don't need a surname... just Pep.” I called him when I sat down and started writing this column but we didn't connect.
For those of you who may not know Shear’s backstory and history, head over to Wikipedia for a more detailed bio. But the short story is that he's been on my radar since 1976, when he was a member of the Funky Kings, who released one album on Arista Records. Clive Davis was too busy with Barry Manilow and the Bay City Rollers, so the Funky Kings were soon dropped. (T Bone Burnett's Alpha Band were also on the label around the same time, and they managed to squeak out three obscure albums that were dead on arrival.) Jules and the Polar Bears came next, followed by a few hit singles he wrote for Cyndi Lauper and the Bangles. He helped create the concept for MTV Unplugged and hosted the first 13 episodes. Along with his solo records and various side projects, Shear must hold the record for being on more record labels than any other artist I know. The current count is at least 14. The arrangements on One More Crooked Dance might be considered sparse, but it's those spaces in-between the notes that bring together the vocals, keys, and harp. Pep's style recalls jazz innovator Vince Guaraldi, Shear’s songwriting has those subconscious historical reference points that only a musicologist could articulate, and Farley’s vocals are layered, harmonic, and a perfected counterpoint to Shear’s unique melody lines, tone and phrasing. John Sebastian's harp is used sparingly on only several songs, yet every breath he takes brings a symphonic quality to the album. As a shamelessly admitted fanatical fanboy, I welcome every new Shear song collection as much as a hot cup tea with honey on a cold Woodstock night beneath a blanket of twinkling stars.
Postscript: I was curious how Shear is consuming music these days. We were each born only weeks apart in early 1952 and grew up swimming in the same musical pool, and I've given up on ownership in exchange for streaming. “I'm still buying CDs,” he told me. “That's what I like. I guess that I'm old fashioned, but I like getting the package along with the music. I believe that it's stupid to not get what the artist wants you to have.” And while it troubles me that much of his catalog remains out of print and hasn't managed to find a digital home for people to discover, Shear has moved on. “I'm just not thinking about old stuff right now.” And doing that crooked dance.
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