Hot Water Music was and probably always will be a big part of my life. Their records and live shows were stunning displays of musical creativity, world-weary honesty and raw, unaffected passion. They also had an album to suit every mood. They had the joyous, uplifting No Division, the quiet desperation of A Flight and a Crash and the seemingly care-free, road-ready feeling of Fuel for the Hate Game. Each album, in its own way, had the ability to communicate with the listener on levels most bands could only dream of.
One of the driving forces behind HWM's conviction when it came to their emotional power was co-vocalist/guitarist Chuck Ragan, a man with a voice drenched in love, loss, regret, and hope, a voice that delivered suckerpunches of emotion through songwriting of the highest calibre. The day Chuck decided to step away from Hot Water Music to pursue other interests (eventually leading to HWM disbanding), was a sad one for many people because with the news came the realization that one of the most sincere and rewarding bands of the last 15 years was no more.
Luckily for us one of these interests was playing his acoustic guitar whilst sipping a beer after a long day's of carpentry, playing stripped down, blue-collar folk. Chuck flitted between his own compositions and covers of old traditional numbers, and it wasn't long before he was playing some of these songs in front of friends and family and (spurred on by his wife Jill), eventually the paying public. Not shy to stripping the sound down on stage thanks to his Rumbleseat days, Chuck seemed to find his feet quickly and, if the bootlegs that have been doings the rounds are anything to go by, the early shows were joyous, positive occasions that were looking forward rather than back.
Thankfully, the energy felt on those early bootlegs is here tenfold and one of the things that make this live debut such a brilliant and engaging listen. At no point on the record's 43 minutes are the crowd nothing less than into it 100%, hooting 'n hollering, singing, clapping, laughing and appreciating the moment for what it is. And if this record does nothing else, it makes you, at least twice during each track, want to be there at the front, sharing that moment, smiling manically with everyone else.
Opener "Open Up and Wail" is one of the two tracks on this 'debut' I have yet to have heard. It's a perfect example of Chuck at his best. It's just man and guitar -- it's open, honest, uplifting, subtle in its aggressive delivery and a perfect way to get things going. Next comes what already seems like an old favourite: "The Boat," a mid-tempo song of hope (or frustration maybe?), and it's delivered with a striking sense of calmness and sincerity. The foot-stomping "Do You Pray" picks up the pace while "Valentine" is a love song in the truest sense and the addition of the violin, along with Chuck's harmonica, add a warm depth which in turn only helps display the passion of its performance.
"Congratulations Joe" is a reflective, poignant 'thank you' to loved ones, his father-in-law in particular, that is played with a smile and an open heart. Next up comes what may be the highlight of the album for many people as Chuck takes on his former band's "God Deciding." After dedicating it to his former bandmates in the Draft, Chuck delivers a masterful reworking of the track that brings the lyrics to the forefront for everyone to hear. It's harrowingly apt for our world today and it's delivered with such raw emotion that it will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. "Fixin' to Die" is a driving, grit-soaked run through the blues which is a stark contrast to "Symmetry," which sees Chuck dedicate it to his wife and deliver a relaxed, violin-backed, harmonica-fuelled country ballad that could (after a bath full of whiskey maybe?), make grown men cry.
Another highlight is the traditional "Dream of a Miners Child" which brings in some banjo adding to the overall hillbilly sound of the song. It gets the entire crowd clapping along and is just a lot of a fun. "It's What You Will" is a slow-burning, porch-fried jam with a simple message delivered clearly: "Mind the world that's dying / it isn't yours to kill." "For Broken Ears" follows at pretty much the same tempo and seems like it shouldn't be there, and although it's a good song it was one of the first I heard a few months ago so I may have just overplayed it, but with a great clap-along halfway through it soon redeems itself.
Closing with old favourite "California Burritos," the show comes to an end the way it started all of 43 minutes ago. It's greeted like an old friend by the crowd and the addition of the violin breathes new life into the song, it all ending with a mass sing-along and some sincere thanks from Chuck. But really, it should be us thanking Chuck.
[Los Feliz is due out May 8, 2007.]