Lew Jetton & 61 South: Palestine Blues

Palestine Blues: Lew Jetton & 61 South, (Coffee Street Records)

Where do you start with this remarkable piece of work? It’s the blues, it’s dark, it’s raw, it’s frighteningly honest, it’s brutal, it’s poignant. And it asks a lot of questions of the artist, the listener and the world around.

A former TV weatherman and broadcaster, Lew Jetton has been playing guitar and singing with 61 South for the past 20 odd years, sharing stages with artists like including Luther Allison, Mike Zito, Koko Taylor, Little Milton and Chuck Berry. They’ve released 3 albums previously; this new one takes its name from Jetton’s home town in rural Kentucky, and shows the local cemetery on the cover. This is a pretty good clue to the album’s contents which, according to Jetton are “about a lot of the problems that lots of us face these days” – songs, he says, with a lot of frustration in them: losing your job, politicians talking at each other, instead of to each other, pain and the things people do to ease that pain. For Jetton these songs reflect a ten year period in his life “which included struggles with alcohol, drugs, depression, joblessness, frustration and a spiritual tug of war.”

The style is electric blues, but done with a sparseness and simplicity that allows the song lyrics and message to come through loud and clear. Just drums, bass, guitar, harmonica and Jetton’s expressive vocals.

After a couple of rocking numbers – nonetheless dark for that – we get the poignant slow, guitar-arpeggio-driven For the Pain, with it’s “Addiction is my only friend…it’s just my pain and me.” Jetton chooses a jazzy approach for another substance abuse lament, Drinking Again. The song is unbelievably sad – “you’re headed for trouble, it’s just a matter of time.”

Don’t Need No Devil reflects in spirit Blind Willie Johnson’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine. Against an insistent beat and sparse guitar, Jetton says he doesn’t need the devil to take him down to hell: “I don’t need no help at all, I done it to myself.” Such an admission is the foundation of recovery from a personal hell.

He follows this with the remarkable Christ Have Mercy. You’ll hear these words intoned in many a church, but never with such urgency, driven by 61 South’s throbbing rhythm section. Jetton channels the traditional confession of sin – sins of omission and commission – in his “Lord have mercy for what I did and did not do.” It’s my own fault, says Jetton, I need help, the very point at which redemption becomes possible.

The last two songs seem to reflect the possibilities of life once confession has been made and help appealed for. The tuneful Drama, with its full throated guitar solo, lifts the mood and makes way for the positive vibe of Bout Time: It’s about time “for me to let it go, time to move on…time to stop feelin’ bad, change my way of thinking, stop living in the past.”

It’s an emotional roller-coaster of an album, full of gritty blues and rock-solid musicianship. But the honesty, the lament, and ultimately the redemption, all make it one to savour.