Jasper Stone’s Wheelhouse 


By Ken Shimamoto 

Give Jasper Stone’s Eddie Voyles credit for tenacity under fire. His band’s been cranking out its distinctive brand of electrified hoedown music – best described by an early song title, “Azle Barrel Ride” -- for over a decade now, interrupted by some tragedies. This new CD captures a band in transition. 

The recording of Jasper Stone’s last CD, 2004’s Back 40 Star, was interrupted first by an on-the-job accident in which Voyles nearly lost a finger, then by the death in a car crash of his best friend, J-Stone drummer Henry Meyers, and Henry’s wife. Soon after, original bassist Dan Stewart left the fold. Jeffrey Williams, who was already playing reggae in Kulcha Far I with J-Stone’s ace lead guitarist Ron “The Velvet Hammer” Geida, stepped in on drums. Voyles’ brother Treg initially filled the bass slot, soon to be replaced by another Kulcha Far I muso, the versatile John “Johnny Peckerwood” Shook. The chemistry between the band boys came at a price: live, it gave the band a somewhat monochromatic (if exciting) approach. Now Geida’s playing with Villain Vanguard, while Williams has gone walkabout (last heard from in the hills of South Carolina).  

Recorded last year at the Echo Lab with Matt Barnhart at the desk and instrumental help from several heavy friends, Wheelhouse might just be – surprise, surprise – the best thing Jasper Stone’s ever recorded. Since their last trip to the studio, Ed’s matured and deepened as a writer, and here he sounds less like the good timey boyo of days gone by and more like a man haunted by loss and regret, unafraid to show his vulnerability. The accompaniment here is also the most sympathetic that he’s ever had. You can hear the difference on the opening “High Cotton,” with keening fiddle courtesy of Boys Named Sue’s Rob Staves. Shearwater’s Howard Draper decorates several of the tracks with Hammond organ and lap steel, while the session’s most valuable player, Brian VanDiver from Centromatic side project South San Gabriel, provides the sting on lead on eight out of 11 tracks. In particular, VanDiver’s slash-and-burn fury on “Guard Hog” is an album highlight.  

With “Brilliant Smile,” we hear the new voice of a kinder, gentler Ed Voyles, “more than scared of what’s happening to me” but willing to bet on redemption via love. “White Rock Hill” starts out with a raw-throated vocal worthy of Levon Helm on The Band over a slapdash riddim that recalls the one from, um, Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells A Story,” slows down for a mournful fiddle-and-lap steel cadenza, then resumes its rollickin’ ride out to the fade. Next two songs are very similar tempo-wise; while “Sick In the Head” is an in-the-red rocker, I give the edge to “3 am, Calling the World” for its lyrics: “All that ever reaches me is the tickin’ of the clock / Hangin’ on my kitchen wall / Lonely place I call the world.” “Big Plans” sounds like the Gram Parsons side of the Rolling Stones, wa-a-ay back before they were a tourist attraction. To these feedback-scorched ears, Wheelhouse’s best song is “Dark and Deep,” a Steve Earle-ian stomp about a jealous lover drowning his sweetie in the river, with banjo from Spitfire Tumbleweed’s JC. The set’s most-rawkin’-est toon is “Bullet Belt,” which boasts an out of control momentum worthy of the Replacements at their sloppy drunk best. 

With Wheelhouse in the rear view mirror, a new J-Stone lineup, with Voyles, Shook, and a guitarist and drummer to be named later, is in the works. Film, as they say, at 11.

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