[SINGER-SONGROCKER] Plenty of artists have fallen through the music-biz cracks, but few have lodged in those cracks like an irritant in an oyster and spent the next couple of decades cranking out pearls. Equally celebrated and neglected, Jerry Joseph is one who has. He encapsulates his dilemma thusly: "We can't open for a hippie band because we sound too much like Dinosaur Jr., and we can't open for Dinosaur Jr. because we're associated with some hippie band."
That hippie band would be Georgia jammers Widespread Panic, a few of whose live staples were penned by Joseph—but don't expect him to exploit that market, either, having griped publicly about the preponderance of Confederate flags at Widespread gigs. Joseph's trio, the Jackmormons, hits too hard for hippies, anyway.
But Joseph has led them into battle for some 17 years, building a cult whose passion any stadium-filling act would envy. He rewards that loyalty with boundless onstage energy and searingly personal songwriting. It's not every sobered-up ex-junkie who'd start his album singing, "I've gotta tell ya, I'd really love to get high." But it's not every 50-year-old rocker who unexpectedly issues his strongest work yet, though Joseph may have done just that with new double album Happy Book.
Joseph says he always wanted to make a double disc, but never knew if he'd have enough top-notch songs to pull it off. But after combing through a backlog of several dozen unrecorded songs, only three were chosen; the album's other dozen tracks were written in a period full of creative compost: the first anniversary of his sobriety (he's nearing three years now), the birth of his son, and his father's death. That mix of mourning and hope, turmoil and hard-won clarity, yields an album of rich emotional and musical textures—perfect for the kind of eclectic double record exemplified by the Beatles' "White Album" or the Clash's London Calling.
Portland's finest shine on the collection, as on strummy shuffle "Radio Cab," with indelible chorus harmonies by country siren Little Sue. Joseph correctly identifies "a suggested intimacy" in "the way her voice works with mine." Sue sings on a couple of other numbers, too, including the sinister "Anaconda," featuring hypnotic banjo by Decemberist Chris Funk. Funk's bandmate Jenny Conlee—who happens to be married to Jackmormons drummer Steve Drizos—adds some glorious organ to the soulful "Temple of Love," among others, while disc-two-opening rocker "Mile High, Mile Deepâ is blasted skyward by a Stax-y horn section.
The album's intensity and generosity show that Joseph's flame has not cooled, but he's learning better how to tend it. Even these strong songs, though, can't match Joseph's probably unattainable ideal. Asked for a favorite songwriting moment from his long career, he answers: "Maybe the first song I ever wrote, when I was 6, when I realized you could make up words and put a guitar to it. It was called 'Love Land': 'I know a game you can never win/ I know a game you can never lose/ The game is love/ We'll go to Love Land/ Where most of the sand/ Is love sand'. And I've never been able to write as cool a song for the rest of my frickin' life."
SEE IT: Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons play Dante's, 350 W Burnside St., on Friday, March 16. 9 pm. $10. 21+.