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We're not sure if JD McPherson is as strait-laced as he says he is. Sure, he may have cropped, slicked-back hair, a crisp denim jacket and choirboy looks, but it's hard to imagine the gravelly soul erupting in his voice is the product of anything but hard drinking and wild living. After all, why else would Tom Waits claim to be a fan?
"I don't take any intoxicants when I'm out on the road," says the plain-spoken, art teacher-turned-rocker from Oklahoma. "But performing is such a huge shot of life."
Sobriety aside, we're betting the crowd gets a taste of that shot as well during his howling, teeth-gnashing set at the Constellation Room at the Observatory on Sunday.
On the heels of his debut release, Signs and Signifiers, the singer/songwriter from the Midwest credits his sound to a steady diet of roots rock and a host of such unexpected influences as Fats Domino and the Pixies.
Throughout Signs and Signifiers, songs such as "Your Love (Is All That I'm Missing)" hop between verses with sprightly guitar playing, loping snare and big brass. Released two years ago and getting wider attention via a new edition on Rounder Records, the album bursts into life from the opening chords of "North Side Gal." Combined with the guidance of producer/standup bassist Jimmy Sutton, McPherson splices his classic and contemporary influences to re-create the rebellious, juke-joint spirit that doesn't just ape American roots rock, but adds a little to the conversation.
"The whole point and reason that I liked [artists] such as Little Richard, the Ramones and Bruce Springsteen was they were doing something they really liked, and enthusiasm is what attracts me to early rhythm & blues and rock," he says.
When working with Sutton on his album, the goal was to keep a grounded sense of appreciation and authenticity in the recording. Whether it's something as subtle as including Wu-Tang piano loops on a cover of Tiny Kennedy's "Country Boy" or an unapologetic homage on the title track to Johnny Marr's peerless tremolo lead on the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" Signs and Signifiers keeps everything from sounding too freeze-dried. McPherson's burning yelp on tracks such as "Firebug" and "Scratching Circles" gives you a taste of his rollicking, live presence. It's the kind of energy that threatens to veer off the tracks at any moment—something he tries to keep under control during performances.
"When you're hitting the groove, it's almost trance-like," he says. "We take the time between songs to make sure we're all starting at the right tempo because there's such a temptation to play faster [live]. But we try to show you can be heavy without being fast."
With their West Coast tour including a stopover on Conan O'Brien's show, McPherson is in high spirits as he continues to prove clean-cut sobriety isn't necessarily a handicap for a gritty soul man. While he's looking forward to more recording and songwriting—"You just receive the songs!" he says. "I've started a few, but they won't arrive without extreme pressure!"—right now, McPherson is more psyched for a new addition to his band's onstage arsenal.
"We've invested in an acoustic piano to take with us on the road for the first time," he says. "It's going to make all the difference!"
This article appeared in print as "Straight Soul, No Chaser: JD McPherson's juke-joint sound is a cocktail of influences."