JOHN TRAIN responds to Neil Young’s challenge and returns with the MESOPOTAMIA BLUES
In 2006, Neil Young released his Living with War cd. In several interviews, he stated that he had been waiting for a younger songwriter to stand up and write an anti-war record but, alas, none did. Jon Houlon, singer-songwriter for John Train, took that as a challenge.
“I understood where Neil was coming from. But I also felt that his approach to the war was somewhat ill-considered. I decided to hit the books.”
And hit the books Houlon did. In addition to reading about the current conflict, he studied Iraqi folk tales, read a history of Britain’s involvement in Iraq (which was previously called “Mesopotamia”), and, in general, “pulled the threads.” Mesopotamia Blues, John Train’s 4th cd and first for the Philadelphia-based Chapter 7 Records, represents the fruits of his labor.
“I think it’s crucial to see this war as part of a much larger continuum. It goes back at least as far as England’s involvement in the early 20th Century.” Houlon continues, “I also see this conflict as a continuation of what happened in the Vietnam Era and during Ronald Reagan’s war against homeless people in the 1980s. It’s all connected. One long war.”
Houlon felt it important to include other voices and opinions. In addition to setting a Rudyard Kipling poem to music, he draws on the catalogues of some of his favorite songwriters: Butch Hancock, Tom T. Hall, Terry Allen, and John Stewart. Houlon adds, “In a way, I didn’t feel qualified to write about, say, Vietnam. So I pulled on some of my heroes. The particular songs I selected aren’t very well known but, in my book, they’re as good as it gets. I wanted to see if I could write some tunes that could compete along side of them. I hope I succeeded!”
None of this would matter if Mesopotamia Blues failed to deliver the sonic wallop necessary to support Houlon’s lofty concept. Fortunately, the band hooked up with renowned Philadelphia engineer Brian McTear and recorded the cd in his Fishtown studio, Miner Street/Cycle Sound. Houlon comments, “While I’m very fond of our first three records (Angels Turned Thieves, Looks Like Up, and The Sugar Ditch all on the Record Cellar label), I think we’ve upped the ante with this one. It sounds bigger, more aggressive.” As he has on their previous releases, John Train dobro whiz, Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner, takes the production seat.
From the opening salvo of “Alfredo Garcia” to Butch Hancock’s epic “Already Gone” to the concluding elegy of the title track, Mesopotamia Blues is a work of great insight and musical power. John Train (now in its 12 year!) has achieved legendary status based both on their recorded work and the hundreds of shows they’ve played, drawing on their vast repertoire of folk and country covers as well as Houlon’s critically acclaimed originals. But longtime fans and new listeners alike will be shocked and awed by the new direction of the Mesopotamia Blues. Perhaps Neil Young will be as well!