The first sound you hear on Michael Jerome Browne’s That’s Where It’s At is an expertly executed series of notes utilizing his Waterloo Jumbo King 6-string guitar. Appropriate, because ‘that’s where it’s at!’
MJB has been making records for a long time, and I’ve been paying attention for almost as long. He is a string wizard, deftly moving between and blurring the edges of his chosen genre with some conventional folk and Americana/singer-songwriter touches.
Browne’s bold-sounding guitar playing is what has set him apart from ‘the also rans’ within the crowded Canadian blues scene. He’s an impressive, capable vocalist, and one of my favourites, but his guitar playing—all fingers, no picks—is completely enchanting. Browne carries That’s Where It’s At with his instrumentation, joined as he is only by drummer John McColgan on select tracks.
Exploring the soulful side of the blues this time out, Browne establishes a theme of individual redemption through challenging circumstance. MJB cuts to the chase: the world may be a bad place, but we have to do better!
To that end, the album is liberally sprinkled with messages of faith. “Everybody’s Ought to Treat a Stranger Right” (featuring Eric Bibb) and “Pharaoh” (with the expressive Harrison Kennedy) are the most obvious examples, but “Love’s A Funny Thing” and “That’s The Way Love Is” (also with Kennedy, long ago a member of Chairmen of the Board) are similarly uplifting. The couple in “Remember When” (a duet with Roxanne Potvin, singing better than ever) may well have faded romantically, but their bond remains.
“The light burns inside me, the love shines within us,” Browne sings within “Where Is The Song?” This original song of faith and remembrance encapsulates much of the album’s message: “Where is the song once the poor bird has flown? The melody lingers through the singer is gone.”
Still, the world is a bad place, and we can’t always be better! This is the blues, after all—the darkness has to be explored. Stevie Wonder’s “Skeletons” [here in a rough version from MJB’s Indiegogo campaign] is most wonderfully interpreted, resurrected from the delete bin of history with McColgan beating a storm. What a performance!
Sam Cooke’s “Somebody Have Mercy” is just sad. Intensely performed, with waves of harmonica providing a mournful coda, but plain sad. Unifying, perhaps, but there is little uplifting about “Louisiana 1927.”
“Black Nights” starts off promising, and fitting for the album’s uplifting theme. On this Lowell Fulsom blues, the object of affection moves on and while our hero pines, he respects her autonomy. At least, that’s how the song progresses until just before the end, when he declares, “Your lover he’s now left, soon be gone yourself.” Playing to type, he’s been plotting nefariously after all.
With a couple instrumentals rounding things out, That’s Where It’s At is another memorable and brilliantly executed album from Michael Jerome Browne; I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed.