A bit late to the party on Son Volt’s newest, around for a week or six, but forgive that tardiness, it’s worth it. First things first, full marks for the title Day of the Doug, a second gen play on words that sounds as if it reflects back on any number of Days. Could be about the Dead, Mexican, as the cover art reflects; could be about the Dead, Grateful, let alone dubious Dog days (or even Dawg days) that might sit in the calendar and greetings card print runs. (I kinda like the idea of Dawg Day, feeling a Dave Grisman tribute day would be cool, but I am digressing.)
Doug is, or was, Doug Sahm, a.k.a. Sir Douglas when he ran his quintet. His life was cut short by a coronary at only 58, and there are few Texas musicians remembered with such love. His career encompassed five decades, from 1955 to the year of his death in 1999. But it wasn’t just about that longevity, it was the styles he absorbed and exuded, seemingly without effort, from the British Invasion type power pop he aped in the 1960s, to the rock and roll ahead of that, and the little bit country, little bit R&B, little bit jazz, little bit blues and a whole heap of Tex-Mex he finished up playing, a veritable pioneer in his gumbo of rootsy Americana.
Jay Farrar, the single leading constant behind Son Volt, is unashamedly a Sahm fan, and covered him back in Uncle Tupelo days (thier valedictory album Anodyne included a version of “Give Back the Key to My Heart”). Mindful of the earlier tributes to Sahm, Day of the Doug was never intended to be a primer for the uninitiated. This is a vehicle for deeper cuts, deliberately spurning Sahm’s lone top 20 hit “She’s About a Mover” and any better-known songs.
Day of the Doug starts, and indeed finishes, with recordings of actual phone calls left on Farrar’s answer machine, from the man himself, back in the day. Delightfully, thus, we get Sahm, the Texas Tornado, as if beyond the grave, singing back a fragment of Farrar’s own “Tear Stained Eye,” incorrect lyric and all, adding to the endearment evident here. First song proper is “Sometimes You’ve Got To Chase Rainbows,” and immediately the whole Sahm vibe is magically conjured up, from the cheesy Farfisa organ, to the chunky guitar, to the straight-ahead four-to-the-floor rhythm section. The vocal, however dissimilar from Sahm’s own croak, inhabits the same glorious Raggedy-Andy sincerity. Having lit up a smile in any sane individual, the album leaps into the same groove on the next track, “What About Tomorrow.” Horton plays a treated beauty of a solo in the mid-section. If it sounds like a dozen other Sahm songs in construction, well, yeah. And?
A word about the band here, notably ex-Bottle Rocket John Horton, That band produced an earlier Sahm tribute, Song of Sahm; that was before Horton joined then, but playing tracks from it live likely helped to familiarize him with Sahm’s catalog. The band is further represented by bassist Andrew Duplantis and drummer Mark Patterson, each from the Lone Star State. Alongside Farrar, the main vocalist and second guitarist, come the multi-instrumental talents of Mark Spencer, on various guitars and keys.
Pedal steel, both plain and treated, from guest Brad Sarno graces “Beautiful Texas Sunshine,” the back-porch lyrical style of the author shining through. It’s feel-good music, plain and ornery, with the rockier “Float Away” then graced by the hoarser and higher pitch of Duplantis, the patchwork harmony in the chorus just perfect. A slighter song, it doesn’t pretend to be any different. “Yesterday Got In The Way” perhaps begins to outstay the welcome of too many similar songs backing onto each other, however effective the combined organ/guitar ride might be. So it is a slight relief to get the more orthodox country warning song, “Keep Your Soul,” up next, a piano and clip-clop diversion that delights with its charm, not least for the hokey solo. I am uncertain whether that is courtesy Farrar or Spencer, given each get credited with keyboards, but it is gloriously gauche.
“Dynamite Woman” is a Farfisa-led choogle, with the first entry of some Cajun fiddle, from guest and occasional Son Volter Gary Hunt, enriching the overall palette, as well as reminding of Sahm’s own fiddle capabilities. These last two tracks really give this project a lift, with “Huggin’ Thin Air” offering no letup, a country lope that can’t fail to have your feet a tapping. The steel is, again, first class, with Farrar channeling peak good ol’ boy. Juan Mendoza has Duplantis back at the microphone, but slips back into near generic, not one of Sahm’s best, but with some nifty guitar as it closes.
“Poison Love” isn’t strictly a Sahm song, if one he covered well and memorably, coming originally from the pen of Elmer Laird, 1951’s 16th best country seller in the hands of Johnnie and Jack. No, me neither, but others tackling this oldie have included Jerry Lee Lewis and T Bone Burnett. I am a sucker for anything containing accordion, with the accordion here almost up to the caliber of Flaco Jimenez, who provided it for Sahm’s own version. “Seguin” slips a maudlin strum in ahead a second nominal cover, Farrar and guitar alone for a verse, before the band slot in behind him, a hootenanny singalong song, where the infectiousness outweighs the cheesiness.
Which leaves only the tour de force of “It’s Gonna Be Easy,” by Atwood Allen, if first recorded and released by Sahm. Starker and more stripped back than that version, it is really just up to Farrar, some acoustic guitar and an almost funereal church organ to draw out the poignancy of the lyric, managing to subversively apply the words to the life and memory of Sahm. A wonderful rendition, it is a suitably majestic way to end this album. Until, that is, a final blast of Doug himself, on voicemail, to bust through any unselfconscious tear with a smile.
Doug Sahm was all about making the music, and making that music enjoyable, whether at home or live, in a club or bar. Day of the Doug does not strive to pretend it’s art or important, but art it is, and should prove to be important to him and his fans. Let’s hope this album finds him some more.
Day of the Doug track listing (all Doug Sahm/Sir Douglas Quintet covers apart where stated):
Doug Intro (voicemail recording, Son Volt cover)
Sometimes You’ve Got to Stop Chasing Rainbows
What About Tomorrow
Beautiful Texas Sunshine
Yesterday Got in the Way
Keep Your Soul
Huggin’ Thin Air
Poison Love (Johnnie and Jack cover)
It’s Gonna Be Easy
Doug Outro (voicemail recording)