Just a glance at the cover of Josh Okeefe’s brand new self-released album, Bloomin’ should give you a moment of pause and curiosity. There’s a simplicity to the cover that immediately calls forth an era in one’s mind. For me, it’s the early to mid sixties, say ’63-’65. It’s the height of The American Folk Revival. There’s incredible music being created and shared with honesty, purpose and ultimately a hope of instigating change. Simply put, it’s an album cover that bears a photo of Okeefe, the album’s title as well as the song titles. But if you look a little closer, you might also find a bit more. When I study the cover, I catch glimpses of Woody Guthrie, Dylan, Phil Ochs, Odetta, Leadbelly Pete Seeger and more. They’re all to be found symbolically haunting this simple album cover. But these spirits inhabit far more than just the album’s cover. Their presence and approval can also be found in the songs Josh Okeefe shares within.
Okeefe is a young musician originally from Derby, England, who now finds himself calling Nashville home. As such, Bloomin’ was recorded live over two sessions at Nashville’s historic Columbia Studio ‘A’ by the late Charlie Brocco (George Harrison, Fleetwood Mac, George Michael, Kacey Musgraves) and mastered by Greg Calbi (John Lennon, Springsteen, Petty, Dylan). Over the album’s 10 cuts, and 32 minutes, Okeefe’s songs explore the juxtaposition of anger, sadness, hope and will even make you laugh here and there. As is the proclivity with folk and protest singers, Okeefe’s going to address social issues head on. There could be a topic that you disagree with, but that’s not the point. What Okeefe offers is a smart, but uncoerced and subtle perspective without judgment or condescension. In fact, the album’s lead off track, “We’re All The Same” reinforces an unexpected and welcoming message of togetherness that resonates particularly powerful today considering the partisanship that permeates nearly every aspect of our lives.
But make no mistake, Okeefe’s beliefs are never compromised. Easily the most compelling and thought provoking track is “Thoughts and Prayers” which finds the songwriter directly addressing school shootings and gun control. But more importantly, the song’s focus sinks it’s claws into the deeper political greed and societal apathy that continue to foster this never-ending debate. “Soldier” and “Young Sailor” both capture the romance and perils of service as well as the longing for home and love left waiting. There’s a clever jauntiness in “Lucille, Lucille” that brings a grin. There’s a Hank Sr/Mississippi John Hurt vibe, captured by “Lonely Highway”, while the lyrical cadence of “When Mother Nature Calls” may reflect the influence the English romantic poets Keats, Blake and Wilde may have left upon a younger Okeefe. No respectable folk album can be without a standout talking blues track, and here it’s the wry smile of “Talkin’ Neighbor From Hell” that brings a welcome moment of levity.
Closing out Bloomin’ are a pair of the album’s finest. “Rolling With The Punches” begins with O’Keefe’s dedication: “A song for all the boxers in the world,” which soon becomes much more than just that. O’Keefe keenly addresses all of us, especially in these unexpected, trying times singing, Taking the world on, blow by blow, without a white flag or a towel to throw. It’s that unending stoicism and hope that perseveres throughout the album, making it truly something memorable and special. Musically, the album is much like it’s cover photo. The sound is rich with atmosphere, with simple arrangements, allowing the listener to focus intricately on the lyrics as Okeefe’s harmonica snuggly wraps about his subtle guitar playing. Thus, it’s a noticeable deviation when a wistful banjo replaces the expected harmonica fills on the final track, “Son Of The Working Class.” The story being, Okeefe had left his harmonica case behind, choosing to make do with a banjo laying about the studio. It’s one of the small, coincidental, unintended nuances that again make this such a rewarding album.
It goes without saying that the Covid-19 pandemic, among other more serious things, put a wet blanket on the music world. Thankfully, for those of us in need of the distractions that music provides from this ongoing tragedy and interruption, many musician’s studio output and release schedule has been less affected. Perhaps one could even say there’s been an uptick in the importance of studio releases. I thought 2019 was an incredible year for roots music, But, I’d argue that 2020’s releases may well rival it’s predecessor’s. Indeed, 2019 was the year I first discovered Josh Okeefe as he plied his trade all about the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. I was struck by his quiet demeanor and intent, and equally intrigued by his similarities to the festival’s namesake as well as Dylan. So, while 2019 was the year I first discovered one Josh Okeefe, 2020 will be the year that I think I really heard what Okeefe’s voice has to say. Despite any of the obvious comparisons to Guthrie, Dylan or others, Okeefe is in reality an artist singing a song all his own. In a year of turmoil and confusion, Okeefe’s voice is that of a confident, contemporary troubadour and protest singer. He’s got one hand firmly grasping the past, and the other clutching the present all while stepping boldly into the future. It’s a promise of a rewarding journey to be sure.
Find out more about Josh Okeefe by visiting his website here: https://www.joshokeefe.com/