Sunday, December 19, 2010

This is heaven in hell

By Wayne Shelor
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Let’s do something a bit different this Sunday in the Sanctuary. Why not pour yourself a cup-a coffee and let’s take 15 minutes this morning to explore something special. We’re going to visit with a remarkable songwriter from England -- a guitarist who many Americans have never heard of -- who I swear is as American as baseball and Chevrolet.

We’ll access our introduction via three songs from his 1989 album The Road To Hell.

This is Chris Rea, and he ought to be one of the world’s best-known songwriter/guitarists. Rea’s a 59-year-old Englishman who is celebrated across Europe; is well-known but not The Man in his own country; and has somehow largely stayed beneath the radar in America. This song, from The Road to Hell, is called “Texas,” and it’s a prototypical Chris Rea song with a soulful tune and lyrical hooks in every other stanza. Like many of Rea’s songs, it’s cultivated along an artery of blues, coloured by Rea’s gravelly, time-worn voice, and full of sustained slide guitar licks that’re as long and scenic as the roads of which he sings, the ones that go on … forever (check out his bottleneck work at the 2-minute mark).

Chris’ “Texas” is as fraught with the sounds and imagery of America as anything penned by Dylan, Cash or Springsteen. It’s the kind of song that you would have heard on American Top 40 radio … back when such a thing existed. Like it? Let’s let it finish, warm your coffee, and we’ll audition the title track:

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This is the album’s title track, “The Road To Hell,” and it takes Rea almost half the song (and this is an abbreviated version) to set up the piece and begin rocking. But “The Road To Hell” is a wonderful song commenting on the frustrations of 20th Century life, using an emotive description of London’s M25 motorway traffic as his vehicle of angst and frustration. Rea often uses cars, highways and travel as allusions and metaphors, references that come easily to the long-time car racing fan and collector.

Hear the various sounds mixed quietly into the mix? Rea is nothing if not atmospheric: he uses whispers, spoken snippets of conversation, bits of television and radio and all sorts of ambient sounds to set the scene in many songs. But above all, he’s a great storyteller (listen to his wily use of words in the second movement of this adroitly lyriced song).

Rea’s also a world-class slide guitarist -- you’ll love his lovely liquid licks throughout this song -- and an old school rock ‘n’ roller. The road to hell, indeed. Why not fill your cup as you enjoy the rest of “The Road” … and then we’ll visit Daytona.

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From the song titles, cultural references and … and even his (lack of an English) accent, you’d never know Chris Rea isn’t an American.

In this song, “Daytona,” he and his female chorus sing the praises not of one of Florida’s best known Spring Break and NASCAR locales, but rather of the Ferrari Daytona, a very special ‘70s-era sports car. Yessir, this is a paean to a haulin’-ass sports car, and as a hymn, it smokes more revved-up American songs such as “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Little GTO” and “Little Red Corvette.”

The “12 wild horses in silver chains” refers to the 12-cylinder, 268 cubic inch, 402 HP engine in a car heralded as one of the Top 10 Ferraris ever made. Chris knows his automotive iron, and from his muse to his music, let there be no doubt: this cat is a red, white and blue-blooded American boy in English clothes.

“Cloudless daydream/Oh dream of dances/To have tamed the sound of thunder/Oh Daytona, shine your light on me” may not be as earthy as songs about Mustangs, T-Birds and Oldsmobile 442s, but when Rea whispers about the screams of a Ferrari, it’s a respectful and understandable lust.

People all over the world long to visit Daytona and have the Florida sun “shine your light on me,” and a poet such as Rea can turn a universal idea into a slowly moving song about a fast car, and few are the wiser.

Hope you enjoyed meeting Mr. Rea. He plays like Allman, writes like Seger and his album The Road to Hell would be a great present for anyone on your list … maybe even yourself. Enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Jim. Fantastic blog about the world's greatest (at least, I think so) slide guitarist and rockin' blues musician. I discovered Chris Rea and his vast catalog of incredible music about a year and a half ago...just by chance as I surfed the web and stumbled upon an old favorite..."Fool (If You Think It's Over)". Since then, I've collected every available CR track...some digitally, but most on CD. And I've got a pretty decent memorabilia collection, as well, and it's growing all the time. I'm hooked, smitten...whatever you want to call it. Just a 56 year old, married American "boomer" chic with a passion for great musicianship and storytelling. And Chris is a master at both. And, God...that voice!