The exceptional Manasquan-raised, Brooklyn-based guitar-pickin’ storyteller Matt Witte delivers a powerful self-released 10-song solo outing, “Ol’ Boy,” which will be celebrated Jan. 12 at Roxy & Dukes in Dunellen.
Murder … mutilation … torture … fallen angels … pacts with the devil … the decay of one’s soul and the city that encompasses it.
These sound like the subjects of a death metal band, right? Or at least Hank Williams III.
Like Hank III, Matt Witte has told truths, tales and tall tales about these topics for 20 years along a trail of broken hearts and dreams, but in such a charming, witty, well-rooted way that the effect is much more fascinating than disturbing. Whether solo or in such bands as Coach ‘N Commando, Chainsaw Trio or New Blood Revival, Witte writes about richly developed and achingly vulnerable characters. They’re like anti-heroes whom you can’t help but love even though they often can be despicable.
Once again, his latest solo effort — the self-released, 10-song Ol’ Boy— brims with great bad guys right from the get-go with the circus-sounding opening track, “Old Brains,” a painful but soulful look at a couple failing to grow old gracefully or with each other’s love intact.
After presenting Witte in the roots-rockin’ two-piece Coach ’N Commando twice last quarter, I’m happy to see that he mixes things up by continuing to put out solo albums. Ol’ Boy is similar to Coach ’N Commando’s approach to Hank Williams-, Rev. Gary Davis- and Junior Kimbrough-inspired country-blues, but with less of the Hank III raucous raunchiness and frantic fingerpicking and more introspection and folk foundation.
Another favorite track is “Bedtime for Bozos,” perhaps a toxic musical update of the 1951 comedy “Bedtime for Bonzo,” but with Donald Trump in the lead instead of Ronald Reagan. With a haunting Mexicali beat, the grisly tune examines the mounting threat of a growing pack of wolves.
Even more harrowing is the fuzzy tale of child abuse and sibling murder in “Ol’ Boy, Old Rope.” Yet, like Witte’s playing in so many of his songs, an absorbing mix of clean picking and disturbing distortion lifts the macabre, morose immorality play up from the depths of Witte’s dark, lyrical soul.
“Back From the Dead” recounts how life can turn you into a zombie if you let it. A soft, simple country accompaniment sounds like how the aching hollow within the protagonist’s bones must feel. The same feeling permeates the regret expressed in “Sometimes the Devil Gets Inside,” about unforgivable anger when love is on the line, and “Angel Plays Dirty,” a harmonica-driven she-done-’em-wrong that turns that devil inside into dust. The Clapton-like slide and Dylanesque melody of the instrumental “King and Queen of the Gutter” also impresses.
Most like Coach ’N Commando are the exceptional, blood-curdling spaghetti western “3 Days Out and Time to Kill,” whose horse-hoof beat is brilliant, and “The Fly!,” which would have been a tasty chicken-pickin’ nugget about infidelity if it wasn’t marred by a warped track of a female opera singer interspersed throughout. I’m also somewhat disappointed in the lackluster performance of the Williams masterpiece “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” I’ve seen Witte perform this tune live a couple of times to much greater effect, but then that was with Coach ’N Commando, so maybe it’s just in keeping with Ol’ Boy as a more mellow affair.
John Swayne, Witte’s drummer for 20 years, makes a hefty contribution to the solo outing, as do Silverclouds vocalist-bassist Daniel Pena, Fatty Lumpkin/Om Trio bassist Pete Novembre, Mad Doctors drummer Greg Hanson, and Kentucky-based guitarist Tom Blankenship. Whether they will be backing him or not remains to be seen, but Witte will celebrate the release of Ol’ Boy on Jan. 12 at Roxy & Dukes in Dunellen with The Fermenters, Secret Admirers and Giant Flying Turtles also on the bill.
Bob Makin is the reporter for MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor and still a contributor to The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like Makin Waves at facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.