On September 10, 2021, Reckless Kelly released its latest album 9/11 Demos, a collection of 16 songs originally recorded on September 11 & 12, 2001. At that point, the band – consisting of brothers Willie and Cody Braun and their drummer Jay Nazz – had two albums under their belts. They’d booked studio time at Arlyn Studios in Austin, TX, to record a group of new songs.
The band learned of the terrorist attacks just as they were setting up. Lead singer Willie Braun recalls, “At first we thought we’d call off the sessions and go home, but for some unknown reason we felt like the right thing to do was to do what we had come to do, record demos of sixteen new songs.”
On that day and the next, Jay Nazz remembers, “It was a constant back and forth from the TV to the tracking room,” as they laid down the basic tracks to the 16 songs presented on their latest release in the original tracking order and with minimal overdubs. Friend and former band member David Abeyta carried the laboring ore on turning this collection of semi-forgotten recordings into an experience that fans of the band will not want to miss.
At first blush, one might think, what’s so exciting here. The bulk of these songs, not surprisingly, were re-recorded to form the heart of the band’s spectacular third album Under the Table & Above the Sun, and another would become title track of the fourth album Wicked Twisted Road. Two more would eventually appear on later albums. Only four remained unreleased until now, and not surprisingly, those aren’t the gems.
But this album isn’t about new music. It goes to something deeper. Something casual listeners may not understand. I want to provide two examples that you will either get or not. If you do, and you like Reckless Kelly, get this album. If these examples don’t resonate for you, then you may want to skip this one.
When I was in college, I had access to fabulous record stores. But for a while, no record player. One day, I came upon a single that really excited me. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band playing an unreleased song live. I asked a couple guys down the hall with a player if they’d put it on for me. One of the guys has a sister who was also there. Well, the sound was lo-fi and noisy. The performance was rough. But man, what energy. You could see the sweat dripping from Max Weinberg’s face. I Ioved it. The girl was like, “why would you listen to this.” Her brother tried to explain: “You like Billy Joel, wouldn’t you want to hear a song that wasn’t on his album?” She didn’t get it.
Years later, my band was making demos for our first release. The drummer hit his sticks together to count off one of our songs. There was something magical about it. So much so that I was determined we’d include a drum stick count off when we recorded the song for the EP. We did. But it wasn’t the same. Even a simple four count drum stick hit can contain unrepeatable magic. Don’t think so? 9/11 Demos will change your mind.
Reckless Kelly is a band at the center of twenty-first century roots rock. At least the kind that I like. Grown-ass men making rock and roll music with a touch of country from drums, guitars and a whole lot of heart and soul. There’s a harmonica here, and a fiddle there too.
These guys are at their best when they use the landscape, nature, and a car or train as a metaphor for the tribulations of domestic life. They’re not above a great road song – “Ragged as the Road I’m On” is one – and they’ve been covering Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lightening” in concert for years. But a train rolling through the open plane with a protagonist who has a little cowboy in his swagger, that’s the sweet spot. And not because cowboys ride horses or even shoot guns. It’s a lot subtler than that. If you could explain it, it wouldn’t be so good.
But I have to try. Let’s start by saying that these are like no demos I’ve ever heard, Gromit. Demo releases have, of course, happened before. Springsteen’s Nebraska and The Waterboys In a Special Place are two examples that worked out pretty well, to say the least. The songs on 9/11 Demos, by contrast, are fully realized band arrangements. The later releases have a little more polish here and a few flourishes there. But for the most part, there are no significant differences . . . on the surface.
If you let yourself go – down a little deeper in the psyche of the members of Reckless Kelly as they first recorded these songs, you start to feel it. Call it energy, call it mojo, call it the blur in the transition, the ghost in the machine. They were living out the horror we all faced that day in their songs. And damn, for my money, every single one of them, well almost, is better than the later formal release. Would I feel the same if I didn’t know the circumstances under which they were recorded? Probably. I ‘ve always liked the original version of “Money Changes Everything” better. But in the end, it doesn’t matter because I do know and that’s a legit part of the experience.
The album begins with “Snow Fall” and “Sound of Free,” appearing in the same order as they would two years later on Under the Table & Above the Sun. Two fabulous early Reckless Kelly songs that use open space imagery to explore the struggle for freedom and connection. Who knew an ice fishing trip could be so vital? If you’ve followed Reckless Kelly, you did, and now you can be reminded.
“Willamina” is a “Copperhead Road-esq” song with some great lyrical flourishes that also appeared on Under the Table. Those lyrical twists are certainly a Reckless Kelly strength, though I personally don’t like their songs as much when they rely too much – in my view – on lyrical cleverness.
“Buckaroo” stayed in the can for a lot longer than the first three, appearing on the album Sunset Motel. It’s a bit of an awkward combination of nostalgic cutesy with Leaving-Las-Vegas “did my wife leave me because I was drinking” or “was I drinking because my wife left me”? vibe. She called him ‘buckaroo,’ that’s so precious.
“You Don’t Want Me Around” is another from Under the Table that is interesting because it differs more than most from the later official recording. On the official album, it took on the twang for which Reckless Kelly is rightly famous. But on 9/11 Demos, it’s almost Bad Company-esq. Not in your face. Still, you’d swear that “here come the Jetsons, 1-2-3” is going to be the next line at certain points.
“By the End of the Night” is the first of the unreleased songs. It’s a good title. But this troubled love song doesn’t really work.
“I Saw it Coming” goes back again to Under the Table. A boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl song. A great guitar lead intro, cool harmonica break, gambling imagery, and a clever coming-and-going lyrical hook. “I know you’re going, I saw it coming.” Not what makes Reckless Kelly magic. But a fun song from a young band that’s easy to enjoy, especially in this bristling form.
“Broken Heart,” “Motel Cowboy Show,” and the final track on 9/11 Demos appeared on the band’s classic Wicked Twisted Road album. Differences in these aren’t huge. But it is interesting to hear them in the midst of the earlier songs from which they emerged rather than with the rest of WTR.
The final three unreleases songs “Me and My Baby,” “I Hate that Guy,” and “Million Reasons,” especially the last one, will give fans that special feeling you get when you hear a song for the first time that a band you love recorded long ago. These are not classic Reckless Kelly, which is why they probably never appeared on an album. But they are interesting – much more so in this context of a set of demos presented in the original recording order – than they would be sprinkled into a box set.