Wooden Leg’s recent release Turn Back the World is a live recording from Boston, MA, featuring Jimmy Ryan’s mandolin and vocals backed by a crackerjack band consisting of Mickey Bones (drums), Brian Dunton (Fender bass), Joe Kessler (fiddle & some harmony), and Duke Levine (electric guitar). This release constitutes a comeback of sorts following up on the band’s first recording, the eponymous Wooden Leg, that came out 23 year ago! Of course, you can hear Ryan on a variety of different projects dating back to the late 70s, including Mandomania; Le Mistral; The Beacon Hillbillies; The Blood Oranges; The Decentz; and Pine Island in addition to his 8 solo releases, including 2019’s Brave, Brave Gun.
Ryan wrote most of the tracks either himself or with a co-writer. The band also performs three covers, the traditional “Little Maggie”; Hank Williams’s “Mind Your Own Business”; and Huddie Ledbetter’s “Relax Your Mind.”
The production on Turn Back the World is excellent and the mix a delight. Everything is in its place. Listening to the CD — I know who does that — I actually didn’t realize it was a live album until Jimmy introduces the band before “Relax Your Mind.” There’s just a touch of audience reaction at the end of songs. It’s a great way for a really tight live performance band to present a collection of new material. It reminds me a little – in spirit anyway – of “Running on Empty.”
The opening track, “Champaign,” is a swampfest of cool licks and jamming. The band shows off each members’ many talents. While Ryan’s mandolin is prominent, everyone gets their chance.
The fiddle really shines on the title track, “Turn Back the World.”
By “Face Up,” the third track, I’m really starting to appreciate Ryan’s relaxed vocal style. It fits his music perfectly, feeling right at home in the swamp. A sort of compatriot to the instruments rather than a front man.
On “Relax Your Mind,” Ryan’s vocal takes on a deeper, richer quality, and the deep beginning of the fiddle solo harkens back to a horn. The fiddle melds into the mandolin seamlessly. And then comes the guitar. This is a jam album to be sure. But there’s just the right amount of structure for my taste.
“I’ve Got a Feeling” feels different, like something I’ve heard before. At first, I can’t put my finger on it. Then, it hits me – “Paint it Black.” Amazingly, the start of the lyric references feeling like you’ve heard the song before. Wow. I wonder if this was planned, intended? Do a lot of people experience it? Or maybe it’s just me? In any event, it was a cool moment. The song – while still containing plenty of solos – feels less swampy, a little more pop influenced than the songs that come before.
“Hard Time” returns to the swampy feel in the form of a longing song with some evocative lyrics. “When I see you on street, I wish you were here with me.” “I’m having a hard time believing all the lies I told you.” The lyric plays more of a role on this one, particularly when they do a break down that lets Ryan’s voice take the center stage.
“Out of My Yard” is the band’s ballad. It’s a heavy number and kind of the flip side of “Hard Time.” It’s where the guy singing “Hard Time” ends up, maybe, when he comes out the other side. Interesting use of a phrase that’s often used in the context of pesky kids. Here, it’s used to fend off an old lover who’s done the singer wrong.
“Gospel Shirt” starts out sparsely with just Ryan’s voice and mandolin, I think. Then, the band kicks in, and he plays some great licks. Lyrically, it’s a hopeful bounce-back from the last couple of numbers with some nice howls. The reference to the day Jesus “got hurt” and rhyming it with Gospel shirt is a unique lyrical twist.
The guys just have some fun with “Mind Your Own Business” and “Little Maggie” to close out the album. If you like the swamp and listening to a real band rather than a recording studio, check out this album.
You can learn more about Wooden Leg and all of Jimmy Ryan’s projects and buy the Turn Back the World CD or downloads on Jimmy’s Website.