Images by Jennifer Coleman, www.digitalsuburbia.net
It’s an exciting time to be Jamie McLean. His self-titled band’s newest album, Completely, is selling well, getting excellent reviews (including one from Relix in the June issue), and has them pounding pavement across the country, sharing the stage with the Gregg Allman Band, the Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi Band, the Drive-By Truckers, this year’s Mountain Jam, and Jackie Greene among others.
The touring, jamming life is nothing new for McLean. A member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band for nearly a decade, the guitarist struck a deep chord with fans of the beloved NOLA outfit, including tasty moments on the inaugural Bonnaroo DVD that caught many a guitar player’s ears. Travelling between the Dirty Dozen’s home base in New Orleans and New York regularly, it was in the Big Apple that he started to find his own voice again- literally and figuratively.
In May of 2005 he released a rocking debut with This Time Around, but when Hurricane Katrina hit southeast Louisiana the following August 29th, his plans would change. The DDBB’s disconsolate recast of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” proved to be his final stand with the band; apropos for an album serving as an elegy for Katrina and her wrathful Crescent crawl. Needing to relocate while New Orleans was resurrected, McLean decided to part ways, headed for New York City, and dug his bandleader shoes in even deeper.
That drive manifested itself in the strength of 2008’s American Heartache, where one could hear McLean start to hit his stride between the unique poetry of his lyrics and the hearty grooves over which they often unfold. As good as Heartache was, Completely is a much sharper focusing of what was hinted at before. Recorded marathon-style at the jam-flavor favorite Water Music in Hoboken, NJ, there is no doubt that this is both McLean’s best work, and a bellwether for goodness to come.
And so it was in the middle of two weeks of opening for the Gregg Allman Band that I had the chance to sit down and talk shop with the current lineup. For a 3-piece, they cover all the bases: McLean is the anchor and calm eye of the storm; drummer Brian Griffin has a bit of Keith Moon mystery about him; and bassist Ben Mars, the newest member of the band, is the youthful abandon. As satisfying a mix as they are on stage, they carry the same dynamic to the dinner table as well.
This serves the songs on Completely quite well. The album is a modern sounding rock record that is firmly based in the classic sonic aesthetic of the best days gone by; when the stage made or broke bands, and albums were something more than polished collateral for a label’s marketing assault. The eleven songs on the album translate well live, which is impressive considering the material was written for and by a 4-piece. Watching the three-way on stage, you get the idea that they don’t mind filling the space.
It takes a village to raise a child, and it’s the same for a band as well. Cruising YouTube, one finds a lot of these moments; a sit-in with Gov’t Mule, a posh party for Esquire Magazine, a fundraiser for the Allman Brothers’ Big House during the United Palace run. You get the point. This is the kind of fruit McLean has worked toward since the very beginning of his career.
It’s an exciting time to be Jamie McLean indeed. Exciting, as well, for fans willing to embrace a band that could, and should, be filling theatres cross-country very soon. Part of that plan revolves around a website called Bandcamp, where bands can load entire albums of music and charge any price they wish, including free. All three of McLean’s albums are loaded there, as well as a compilation of very recent live dates. If Jamie McLean and Completely are the shape of things to come, then a lot of fans are completely ready for it, whether they know it or not.
BF: Jamie, let’s talk about how you got here. You are from New Canaan, Connecticut, but your music has a southern flair.
JM: You know, it’s funny that a lot of people say it sounds ‘southern’. Yes, there was time spent with a band based in New Orleans, I guess that’s some of it. I just always gravitated towards more bluesy, soulful stuff, whether it’s southern or not, and that always hit me more than other styles.
I don’t consider myself writing southern rock. I just write what I write and I guess it has a little bit of a bluesy, southern thing to it. I mean, I grew up listening to the Allman Brothers, The Black Crowes, and a lot of the southern bands, so there are definitely influences, but I also grew up listening to Zeppelin and Cream and Jimi Hendrix. I think all the bands have a hard-core blues element, and that’s southern.
BF: Your last project with the DDBB was What’s Going On, the re-envisioning of the Marvin Gaye classic. Shortly after the album was done, you made a clean break for New York. Did you know that it was time?
JM: Before I joined the Dirty Dozen, I was a front man, writing original music and singing; and then I became just a guitarist, not singing, not writing music. And it was an amazing opportunity, but I had written two albums of original music, was getting called to go out and open for certain bands with my own group; it was something that simmered for a while. It just sort of came to a head.
Katrina definitely kind of encouraged that; everyone had to pick a different city to live in. I was going to New York every other weekend anyway, so that was an easy choice. More than anything, I would say it was something I knew in my gut that I needed and wanted to do, and that became the right time for it. And once you had all this music and you were starting to get calls, it was just the right time and I knew it, and they knew it. When I approached them, they were like “Man, we knew this was coming. We’re sad, but we’re not surprised. When you’re the next Dave Matthews Band, don’t forget about us and let us open up.”
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