Rarely does one find a CD with so apt a title as John Wilber's "Alive & Well On The Skids." Mr. Wilber's music does indeed seem to come from 'the skids,' a dark, dreary place where hope is at best fleeting. Devoid of self-pity, unaffected by artifice, and fuelled by fierce pride, John may well stumble through the dark, but there's nonetheless a bleary-eyed optimism at work; he knows well that any promise of hope may be illusory, but sometimes it's all we have.
This one isn't a blues disc by definition, at least not in conventional terms; rather, like Tom Waits, Mr. Wilber crosses boundaries and blurs distinctions while remaining firmly rooted in a resolutely bluesy place.
The opener, "Through The Eyes Of Love," sets the pace. "There's nothing that I could do/to work my way to you," John sings. Yet love exists, and while there may be no guarantee it'll prevail, the mere fact of its existence is sufficiently miraculous. "Long Beach," with its piano accompaniment courtesy of label mate Jana Thornton, is a somewhat surreal spoken-word excursion down gritty streets. "Do You Think" ought to be required listening for anyone involved in a relationship on the rocks; sounding like it was literally ripped raw and bleeding from a heart that's breaking, it's a frighteningly intense revelation of the hurt we do unto one another. "Too Much Fun" is John's defiant defense of his chosen lifestyle; it may not be pretty, and he's unlikely to get rich, but damned if he'll change just to conform to the expectations of others!
"Does It Have To Be This Way" again asks tough questions, these more social than personal. In spirit reminiscent of "Blowin' In The Wind," it's equally effective in addressing the anguish of why and how so much injustice can exist in this world. "Solo" is just that, a brief instrumental interlude with John blowing some fine Piedmont-style harp (Sonny Terry, anyone?); "Lynn's Song" is a stark portrait of a life some would dismiss as wasted ("She's on a one way street/headin; straight to hell). Yet in John's hands we care, we see that sometimes it really is the proverbial cry for help, that all lives deserve equal consideration; that he accomplishes so much in the space of a single song says much about John's songcraft.
John's voice isn't far from the aforementioned Mr. Waits, with maybe a hint of Dylan here and there. It's gruff and gritty, and as a result every word he sings rings true. His playing - he handles guitar and harmonica, with occasional overdubs - is just right, too. Nothing flashy, nothing that would earn points for technical mastery, but unerringly appropriate for the material.
Tiny Maple Island Records is one of the more interesting indies out there, dedicated to presenting the works of singer-songwriters in spare, intimate settings that make no concessions to commercial interests. John Wilber's "Alive And Well On The Skids" is a fine example, a challenging but ultimately rewarding experience. In a world of artifice, where producers all too often steal the limelight from so-called artists, Mr. Wilber's music is as real and as honest as it gets.
Maple Island Records
18617 HWY 104 South,
Glenwood, MN 56334
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