Old-school tasty, that is. Back in the 1970s, the Bay Area had some wonderful small clubs, dark cheerful rooms where the band hung out and the acoustics sometimes deadened on the haze of pot smoke in the air. The Shady Grove, The Green Earth, the Lions Share, the Keystone Berkeley—bands like Hot Tuna and Roadhog and James and the Mercedes and the Jerry Garcia Band would take the stage, and there we all were, watching and listening, getting into a groove that just seemed part of the place, the time, the sound.
With Only Road Home, Ronnie Penque—a killer bassist who happens to play for the New Riders of the Purple Sage – has managed to pull something out of the air, out of the studio, out of time. It’s there in the heartfelt lyrics, the clean easy production values, the echoes of pedal steel and the ‘hey put your boots up’ twang of the lead guitar. It’s there in Penque’s lead vocals, which somehow evoke touches of Delaney Bramlett and Van Morrison and, yes, Jerry Garcia and John Dawson, while still magically remaining entirely distinct and his own: cheerful, occasionally plaintive, always accessible.
The eleven songs, all original compositions, are cohesive and incredibly, well, listenable. The band assembled is a lineup of solid pros, and they know what they’re doing; Only Road Home has a solid alt-country pedigree. “Santa Ana Wind”, with Jimmy Fleming’s easy, talkative fiddle, is a gorgeous blues-country piece. “Olivia Rose”, also recorded with the New Riders, remembers the young daughter he lost, with some of the loveliest lyrics imaginable (“butterflies are landing on your clothes” was poignant enough to make me mist up). “Mallory” details a true incident, in which a little girl was announced missing at a show, but which turned out to be a hoax.
The songs are diverse and individual, and Penque handles each and every one of them beautifully. What he manages to pull off here is a kind of melding: a CD very much of the here and now, and yet one that takes me back to smoky Friday nights at the Shady Grove.
- Deborah Grabien