All I Got Left
Coincidentally as we sit down to write on this day of Levon Helm’s birthday, we have one of his many disciples – singer-songwriter, blues guitarist Chris Bergson, offering his new solo effort, All I Got Left. It’s solo in the true sense of the word as you hear just Bergson’s soulful vocals, with perhaps more nuance than you’ve heard on any of his band albums, and his stinging, slicing guitar featuring more slide than we’re used to. The spirit of Helm is not far removed either as the last two cuts, Chuck Berry’s “Back to Memphis” and Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” were both performed by Levon and bandmates in the second incarnation of The Band. Another track, “Last Lullaby,” comes from the pen of keyboardist Glenn Patscha of Ollabelle, part of the big umbrella Woodstock family spawned by Helm that includes Bergson.
This record is borne directly from the pandemic as Bergson themes the album on love and loss, especially the first half which contains his originals. He opens with the title track, a soul ballad and authentic love song, with a Robbie Robertson-like riff and a chorus “’til I love you with all I got left.” This, like many other songs, was honed by virtual concerts that Bergson performed alone in his living room. He sings of the loss of John Prine and his friend, Marc Lawrence, later nodded to in the gorgeous instrumental “Silver Surfer.” Like most New Yorkers, Bergson was struck by the desolate, deserted streets once so busy in the city. He often left his home to take walks through these empty environs, seeking song ideas. “Hector and Donna,” a finger-picked country ballad emerged as did the image- filled “Low Hanging Clouds.” With the Memphis groove emanating from his telecaster, Bergson tells of a riverboat man who takes comfort in his routines with lines such as “grateful for this post to report to” as the pandemic seems to shroud all in its path.
“Laid Up with My Bad Leg in Lenox” is a song written with his frequent collaborator, soul man Ellis Hooks, one they often played before the shut-down ensued. Fortunately, we now see live dates for Bergson and Hooks in June. Of course, the song speaks to excuses for being stuck at home, the kind of excuses that the pandemic made unnecessary. “Latitude” is an “older” character song that appeared on Bergson’s 2007 Fall Changes. Similarly, it speaks to a guy spending too much time in his own house. His mix of well-chosen notes and chords keeps it deep and bluesy. “Cheap Guitar” is own swampy slide-guitar driven cover of Richard Julian’s (Norah Jones, Little Willies) features a wailing, passionate vocal and the frequent refrain “What are we hanging on to?”
The most restrained tracks are the aforementioned instrumental and his sensitive treatment of the gospel ballad “Last Lullaby,” written by Patscha. The two closers related to The Band are not here by accident. Bergson played “Back to Memphis” with Levon Helm at his now legendary Midnight Rambles. Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell, covered both by The Band and by Rick Danko solo, took on special meaning during the pandemic and in album filled with strong vocal performances, his passionate take here is especially outstanding. Bergson was struck by the song’s opening line “Seen the arrow on the doorpost/saying this land is condemned,” just one of the many lines in the song that speak to isolation and loss. In that sense, it’s the perfect closer for an album mostly themed on those subjects.
This music sits comfortably in that sweet spot between blues and Americana. The unadorned format and “living room” intimacy sheds even further light on Bergson’s masterful guitar, songwriting, and vocal skills – further evidence that he is one of the best blues songwriters, which he has already proved several times over.
- Jim Hynes
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