New Orleans musician Joe Tullos left us just shy of a year ago, but he was determined to leave a parting gift, his posthumous release Vessels. Tullos was a legendary character of several pursuits that included writing music for Jimmy Buffet, cooking for John Grisham, and touring with Carl Perkins. He was a chef, traveler, raconteur, and bandleader for the group Big Sun. Having beaten cancer in 2015, Tullos learned that he has developed pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2020. His way of dealing with the daunting prognosis was to go into the studio and record one last album. The project became a musical version of “This is Your Life.” Three old friends stepped up to help produce: drummer Kevin Aucoin, who had been Tullos’s bandmate and friend since he was a teenager; fellow Big Sun alum keyboardist/accordionist/vocalist and music director for the project Mark ‘Byrdawg’ Dillon; and artist manager and music producer, Michael Paz.
Recording was done at Aucoin’s French Quarter studio over 17 days. Tullos poured everything he had into laying down tracks up until two weeks before he died, creating a collection of songs that segue from one genre to the next, with his emotive, plaintive voice and sharp lyrics at the center of all. Also appearing on the album are band members from the Big Sun era: Randy Ellis on guitars, James Slaughter on bass, Stephen ‘Beaver’ Montz on guitar/bass/vocals, and Brian Stoltz on guitar. Melanie Scott, who was the vocalist with Odyssey (along with Kevin Aucoin) joins Tullos in a duet on “Don’t Break On Me”. New Orleans musicians Beth Patterson on bouzouki and oboe, pedal steel guitarist Dave Easley and cellist Alex Price contribute as well. Friends from North Carolina also contributed, with Stu Cole on bass/guitars/dobro and Rob Sharer on violin/viola. The project was mixed by Steve Himelfarb, who recorded Tullos’s first album, Big Sun, in 1992.
The album begins with a mid-tempo groove over which the frail voice of Tullos emits some strange lyrics in “Anna So Blew” – “She mixes alcohol and methadone, /for pest control in her dome/She got a crumpled picture by her bed/and when I asked her she said/She tried to save his head.” The “so blew” in the title can just as easily be read as “so blue” for this despondent character. “Amazing Me” though is a lilting love song buoyed by organ and keyboards. “Alpha Ray,” set in North Carolina, is not only a terrific power pop song, but contains some surprisingly optimistic lyrics, given Tullos’ state – “Cuz I’m doing fine/just moving my mind/All right,” yet one can read imminent mortality into the deceptively musically bouncy “At the End of the Day.”
Each song has a line or more that attest to his special songwriting gifts. Such is “Holding you like broken glass/ Can not let these good times pass” in the infectious standout “I Seen It Coming Down.” The tender, undulating “Lilly” is another heartfelt love song in the vein of “Amazing Me” but a musical highlight as well with the seldom heard textures of viola, Wurlitzer, cello, and oboe. Glorious pop colors the ebullient, defiant “Leave This Town,” another keeper where Tullos’ voice summons some power unheard until this point as the guitars and organ create a sonic maelstrom. The Beatle-esque “The Only One” is more evidence of his command of pop.
“Don’t Break On Me” features the lovely voice of Melanie Scott duetting with Tullos across spare accompaniment in this flowing, lilting, smile-inducing tune. “Flash of Darkness” comes with full ensemble of musicians and vocalists in a hymn-like processional cadence with lyrics that presage the end is near – “And o goes the story of the Babylon baby/The story is true though the story is old/And she is the Phoenix and I’m just the ashes/So sweep me away and on the wind I will follow.” Yet, that’s not closer which instead comes with “Next Town,” a teary, poignant farewell to family, friends and fans with the stark backdrop of somber piano chords and cello. – “…So, when I die don’t put my bones in no coffin/Set my ashes to ocean/And we’ll see where I wash up.”
The album title refers, in part, to Tullos’s wish for his ashes placed in a glass sphere and scattered in the ocean off the North Carolina coast where the Gulf Stream would carry him away. The sphere appears on the album cover. Fans can expect two more releases of new material as well as reissues of the Big Sun album and Joe’s The Scoundrels Waltz.
Don’t be dissuaded by Tullos’ last gasp and some of the somber lyrics cited above. This expertly crafted album has the sneaky quality that will have you returning to reexamine some lyrics or soak in its affecting mix of breezy and intense songs.
- Jim Hynes