Recording of August 1990: Riverside

LUKA BLOOM: Riverside
Reprise 26092-1 (LP), -2 (CD). Mike Krowiak, eng.; Jeffrey Wood, prod. ADA/ADD. TT: 44:31

Can't tell you how many singer/songwriters I've heard live before they ever got signed up, before they could even afford a band, just them and a guitar up there making us feel like that (as Joni Mitchell used to sing). Finally the first album comes out, and wha-a-a-a? The sleeve lists three producers, eight engineers, thirty session musicians (including two synthesizer players, but not counting the strings), a Brazilian percussionist, and none of the songs I've heard the poor slob sing for the last six years.

Not so Luka Bloom, who arrived from Ireland in 1987 with an unbending intent. "I made a conscious decision before I went to America to create a solo performance that would be exciting and relevant to rock audiences. I also decided that I was going to create an audience for myself, without the help of record companies." The directness of those statements tells you a great deal about the man and his music. Bloom went straight from stage to studio, sans demo tapes, on his own terms. Riverside, the album that resulted, is, as far as I can tell (not having heard Bloom live), pretty close to what you'd get at a concert. There are seldom more than one or two instruments added to Bloom's voice and steel-string acoustic guitar on any one cut, and it's all atmospherically tasteful; only on the keening "Dreams in America" does a rock band emerge, and then only for 30 seconds of a six-minute song.

"I was brought up near the riverside, in a quiet Irish town / An 18-month-old baby the night they laid my Daddy down / Everyone knew everyone, and everybody else as well / My home was filled with sorrow then, too much for me to tell." So Bloom introduces himself in "The Man Is Alive," a sadly joyful ode to the discovery of his long-dead father within himself. Such intimations of discovery, of learning for the first time, set the tone for the album, as did the twinned hope and frustration of John Wesley Harding's Here Comes the Groom (can't help thinking of these two in a single mental breath).

But Bloom is no innocent, no brilliant youth like Harding. He's seasoned, lean, on the album cover looking tough, uncompromising, serious—all without the usual randy rocker posturing. The music has all the grab'em vitality of someone used to appearing as a stranger before hostile audiences (he's opened for the Pogues) and winning them over in a single song through sheer energy and commitment—the story of Bloom's Stateside residency.

Bloom's guitar work—and whatever else I say in this review, remember that this is acoustic rock'n'roll, and that anyone who's heard Elvis Presley's original Sun sessions knows that the very first white rock'n'roll was acoustic, not to mention drumless—will variously remind various of you of early Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Richard Fariña, Tracy Chapman, John Fahey, and Pete Townsend's power chording; this is the ultimate rhythm guitar album, an acoustic Lou Reed with chops. The songs and singing hit with the loneliness of Nebraska (Springsteen's only truly great album), but without El Bosso's sometimes suffocating sentimentality. And with the occasional cello, bodhrán, tombak (Iranian finger drum), fiddle, keyboard, and lots of reverb, this is Enya at 78rpm, Daniel Lanois without his meticulously worked murk, a Tommy Makem who's seen a dark, true light.

But as tastefully minimal as these added instruments are, I wish producer Jeffrey Wood and Reprise had gone all the way and given us only Bloom's guitar and voice—it's amazing how even so few instruments can sound like designer clutter. LP and CD are very close, but the LP—great surfaces, by the way—is ever so slightly deeper, rounder, fuller. Bloom and his guitar are very upfront, all other instruments recessed in a deep sonic perspective of brisk reverb. It ain't audiophile, but it do pull you in.

Bloom gets his Irish terminally up in "An Irishman in Chinatown," turning on all that gabby charm and laughing at himself while he's doing it, while "The One" is a heroic song imploring a musician friend to not be a hero: "You've been singing your guts out—isn't that enough to do? Why should you be the one to go out on the edge?" A brave song to sing without a trace of irony, as Bloom does here.

All of the songs have an entirely disarming, naked purity and directness, Bloom wasting nothing on "singerly" refinements or affectations, either in voice or in words. From "Over the Moon": "When she moves, I watch her / When she speaks, I listen / When she stands, I stand beside her / When she laughs, I'm over the moon!", followed by a whoop and sung to a lightning-strummed groove that makes Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" sound like a dirge. And "This is for Life" is sobering in its total commitment. This guy's not fooling around.

Surfacing throughout the album are questions, dreams, longings for a love left back in Ireland. She and Bloom are finally doubly united, in the US in the flesh and in the song at album's end, "You Couldn't Have Come at a Better Time," which is so fresh Bloom sounds as if he's writing it as he's singing: "Where is this place we've come to / We don't know what to say / We long to see each other / And are frightened of that day / When you look into my eyes my love / Tell me what you see / Is it something you're not sure of / Is it something true and fine / Or is it just another case / of the right thing at the wrong time?" And the fiddle reels the chorus. The near-formality of the lines is perfectly matched by Bloom's traditional Irish diction as he whispers, shouts, hoots'n'hollers.

There's something special happening in pop music when one major label (WEA) can release in consecutive months first albums by two such talented, clean-sweeping musicians as John Wesley Harding and Luka Bloom. After going apeshit over JWH last May, I'm almost embarrassed to be scraping up whatever superlatives are left over for Bloom. Almost. Everyone should have such problems. Makes me feel pretty stupid for carrying a guttering torch for Dylan the last 20 years—it's been passed on while I wasn't listening.

But the word I've so far avoided, good people, is "noble." This music has nobility, substance, integrity—blood and fire. It had me laughing and crying within the same minute. And if you're not hooked by the first 15 seconds of rhythm-riffing on the opening "Delirious," see a doctor. Fast.—Richard Lehnert