Making a Scene Presents an Interview with Jonathon Long
The first thing you notice about Jonathon Long’s new record, Parables of a Southern Man, is that his virtuoso guitar playing is not his only strength. Long is a complete musician and entertainer, a great singer and totally original songwriter whose lyrical guitar playing is always in service to the bigger picture.
Technically there is only so much you can play on an electric guitar-fronted blues band, and most everything has been tried at least once. The differences are more in emotional expression, the ineffable human quality that animates the playing and performance. Long excels at the high intensity blues rock format. You can hear Louisiana calling in Long’s control of dynamics, and his conversational manner of playing, that front porch penchant for telling multiple stories in a single solo. As a sheer force player Long belongs in the company of the masters. The bells he rings come closer to Albert Ayler’s than Johnny B Goode’s. Yet he can be as elegant and soulful as B.B. King on an R&B jump tune or a ballad.
But that still isn’t the best thing about Long. What really sets him apart is his songwriting and singing, which has evolved out of the blues canon into his own version of Americana, a place emerging from but not tied to any genre, too personal to be anything but unique.
Long comes from a long line of blues musicians who know how to play a Louisiana dance party. The Baton Rouge-born musician was child prodigy who was playing guitar by age six and started performing at blues jams in the Baton Rouge club Swamp Mama’s when he was ten years old, alongside local legends Kenny Neal, Rudy Richard and Lil Ray Neal. When Long was 14 his parents gave him permission to go out on the road with Louisiana Blues icon Henry Turner. Long, playing bass in the band, learned the ropes on the juke joint circuit and before long knew how to please a crowd on his own. Long joined New Orleans icon Luther Kent’s blues band and began playing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where he has become a local fixture. In 2011 at the age of 22, going under the name Jonathon “Boogie” Long he won the “King of the Blues” award for best unsigned Blues guitar player in America and in 2012 released his first album, an impressive showcase of his blues guitar talents. His second album Trying to Get There showed Long growing as a songwriter and singer, a transition he’s completed on the new album.
His songs here are more complex and varied and his lyrics show more and more emotional depth. Themes of alienation, broken communication, existential dread, aspiration and dejection exist alongside more hopeful sentiments in a mix familiar to the balance Warren Haynes brings to his world view. The opening track, “Madison Square Garden,” epitomizes the changes in Long’s approach. The vocal is framed by an acoustic guitar rhythm track as Long sings of the iconic rocker’s dream of playing Madison Square Garden. But something is wrong – the elevator isn’t working, and he has to climb the stairs. The metaphor is clear – “gotta pay your dues if you want to play the blues” — but there is redemption in romantic love. Blues is not as evident as on Long’s other records on “Madison Square Garden” — with its “you and me” chorus and floating melodies it comes closer to the cross-generic sound of the Allman Brothers on their more introspective material. In a similar vein, “Pain” is an acoustic ballad in which the singer embraces the pain in order to move past it, resolving in a beautiful Claptonesque electric-guitar solo.
“The Ride” is a flintier-edged vehicle, a hard rock tale of existential terror that features one of Long’s best vocal performances and an all-out multi-tracked electric guitar assault. Fans of Long’s earlier records will thrill to “My Kind of Woman,” a classic boogie with Long’s clever vocal giving it a different twist.
Themes of missed communication run through “Landline,” a relationship song that uses the tactile quality of a landline telephone, then the electronic virtuality of a cellphone, to explore how the difficulty of getting a message through to a loved one hasn’t changed with technological advances. The uptempo, riff-based “All I Need” explores similar territory. Long doesn’t know what to say to his romantic partner, but he knows he needs “a saving grace” and breaks it down to the line “all I need is you.” It’s a secular song, but it sets up the dramatic “Jesus’ Face.” Long has gospel roots so it’s not out of place for him to sing about Jesus Christ walking among us, but the song’s inclusion here has the dramatic power that “Jesus Just Left Chicago” brought to ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres. Long’s Sunday meeting familiarity with the subject animates this story of Christ in a contemporary setting without proselytizing or politicizing. He really knocks out the word “Jesus” every time he sings it.
Long’s skillful songwriting continues with “My Kind of Crazy,” an inventive construction with another great vocal and a jazz-influenced guitar solo. The song is composed in sections. After the solo it drops down coming into the last verse then builds to a climax, followed by a neat organ coda. “That Ain’t Blues” is an old-fashioned gospel-style ballad. “Cheap Romance” is a nifty southern rock party song, celebrating a night out at the club looking for a fling, but even here Long is haunted by the past. He tells this story really well.
The advances culminate is one of the best short stories on the record, “Jenny,” which conjures the image of an old codger in his rocking chair, telling tall tales, telling Jenny to “fetch me my pills.” The ingenious musical design of the song sets off the speaker’s tale with an elemental bass line played by the great Charlie Wooton.
All of this predicts a great future for this still-developing Long. The next time he sees Madison Square Garden that elevator will be in good working order.
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