By Colleen Gilson
Photos by Travis Clark
In September, Jason Elmore released the video on social media for “Fragile,” from his new effort, Rise Up Lights, and it was a moment of “Ah I KNEW IT!” for this writer. For instead of the blues and blues rock for which he has become known, it’s a foray into smoking hard rock– heavy beats, booming bass and screaming guitar, and almost like a harbinger of what was to follow on his fourth CD, the chorus:
“Let me give you fair warning
while the air is still calm
she said I’m fragile but not like a flower
I’m fragile like a BOMB”
With “bomb,” as in “bombastic,” being the perfect description of this turn in Elmore’s musical catalog.
One listen was all it took for me to want to get into the hows and why’s of this other side of Jason Elmore (even though I listened to it non-stop at least fifteen times), and he graciously accepted my invitation to come hang and talk in person about this turn in his musical trip.
The explosion of Elmore’s heavier side via influences ranging from 1970’s through 1990’s heavy rock and metal heyday heroes including Black Sabbath, Van Halen/Van Hagar/Montrose up to Soundgarden are clearly audible, not so much in mimickry but more as a tribute.
The thought hit me that usually guitarists who start out playing metal end up morphing into blues as they get older but surprisingly, with Jason Elmore, such is not the case.
“I started out playing in metal bands in the Texoma region. My dad would take me to see Pantera and AC/DC and any concert that was in town when he would get me on the weekends, trying to be the cool parent, and if there was not a good concert like, that he would take me to Poor David’s Pub or Greenville Avenue Bar and Grill to see Jim Suhler or Bugs Henderson, Mike Morgan, Alan Haynes… blues guys. I developed a love for that and after being in the metal scene, dealing with singers that wouldn’t help load out equipment and the turmoil of everybody wanting to be Motley Crue, I just got tired of the ego that went with that scene– the whole Jagermeister crowd– and I wanted to express myself in other ways, so it became accessible somehow to get into blues. And Jim (Suhler) had seen me show up so many times to his gigs that he was able to give me a hand and helped me with some gigs in the Dallas area. He gave me opportunities and told people it was okay to like me (laughs)…”
My first encounter with Elmore was a KNON Bluesfest perhaps in the early 2010. He played an early opening slot solo, and though the forte was blues, the thought came to mind, “I bet this guy can shred.”
The formation of Jason Elmore & Hoodoo Witch, after a few trial and error members, resulted in the solid trio with Mike Talbolt on drums for about the past 13 years, and then the addition of a (then) very young Brandon Katona on bass.
“Brandon’s dad was like my dad– he’d bring him to the gigs and he started sitting in with us on guitar. And then things happened that I needed to change bass players and we had a tour coming up to Canada basically ‘tomorrow,’ so I asked him if he wanted to play bass and he said, ‘Sure!’ We had a week long residency at this place in Edmonton, and the first gig went really well but the next morning I got a phone call from the owner who said, ‘You mean to tell me you brought a 17 year old into my bar?’ so I had to send him back to Texas and use a local guy up there– it was a disaster!” However, Katona became third piece of what is now a longtime, solid trio for the past ten years. The chemistry on and off stage is undeniable.
The title of the fourth CD, Rise Up Lights, was a puzzle to me… starting with the design of black background with a purple and green font and the simple picture of a razor blade (art by Jason’s wife, Lauren). “It’s a throw back to Judas Priest records, inspired by that era. I was listening to some comedian podcaster who said if you said ‘rise up lights’ in an Australian accent fast, it sounded like ‘razor blades’.” (Try it!)
“This is really gonna piss off the blues purists.”
Having won two Dallas Observer music awards in 2012 and 2017 for “Best Blues Act” seems to have been a flattering blessing as well as a curse of sorts for Elmore.
“I don’t call myself a blues artist– I’m blues rock. There are so many sub genres of rock– like ACDC or ZZ Top or Led Zeppelin– so I’ve always tried to stick close to the blues when I’ve done the other albums and that’s the kind of stuff I like cuz that’s the way I write, but with this one, I decided they’re not gonna like it anyway (laughs) so I might as well not try to stay within these self prescribed limitations of what I think they think it should be, I’m just gonna make something that I like.”
Elmore pauses a few seconds, and turns pensive. “Maybe it’s cuz I’m older… but I realized halfway through that this was something different. Eddie Van Halen had just passed away and that hit me hard—because he was and still is one of my top heroes– everything I was writing started coming out that way– it’s an homage to Eddie. I’ve always been a fan of Black Sabbath– I love those doomy riffs– and Led Zeppelin… it’s all blues-based.
There have always been elements of heavier stuff on my other albums but the blues purists are really tough… there’s a lot of blues Nazis. ‘That’s not how Muddy Waters would have played it,’ or, ‘Oh you’ve got pedals…’ I’m a guitar player who likes other guitarist-based stuff and of course, Stevie Ray Vaughan was a big part of my influence as a kid and still is important to me, but a lot of purists look down on that because it’s lot of ‘excessive guitar’ and it’s more rock than blues. They get very picky– well, and so is the metal crowd– it’s gotta be Cookie Monster or nothing.”
We agree that music is art, art is subjective to taste and preference, and not everyone is going to like everything.
“People get too hung up on what is blues, and what’s not– everything changes and progresses, and I think if Muddy Waters was around now he’d be using pedals. I love the traditional stuff, too, and I feel it should be done as close to that if you’re gonna do it that way. There’s guys like Mike Morgan, and Reo Casey, who’s a young guy that’s coming up– there’s guys doing that blues thing who are doing it much better than me.”
Rise Up Lights was recorded at the now-defunct January Sound, engineered/mixed/mastered and co-produced by Tye Robinson. “Tye was there with me for three years, listening to all my shit. (laughs) He was very valuable because he would tell me honestly when something could be better, if something flat out sucked, or if I needed to stop fucking with something because I already had it right.”
I asked Elmore if he wanted to go song-by-song to talk about them and the lyrical content, but he said that it’s best to allow the listener to experience the 46 minute long musical journey on their own rather than break down and analyze each song.
“I try to put a lot of thought and effort into writing– sometimes I use a rhyming dictionary… to me, the writing is the most important part of music. I won’t release a song until it’s what I feel is good…like to use a lot of double entendre, not quite as topical of lyrics– I’m really inspired by Roger Miller and Louis Jordan, as far as songwriting goes—really clever cute songs, funny– I’ve always been a fan of good writing.”
From the opening riffs of “Blind” with its Page-esque guitar sound that gives way to power chords, the song ebbs and flows in its musical journey as the backdrop for the lyrical journey of self-discovery.
Elmore is not a political person publicly, but in the straight ahead rocker “None for All” he points out the division of society, and how we seem to have lost our humanity.
The first instrumental is entitled “Leviathan,” chockful of guitar wizardry and definitely hat tips to many of his influences.
“Burning Bridge” gives the listener a respite, with lushly strummed chords underscored by crisp drumming and subtle bass, building into a dramatic exercise that perfectly accompanies the lyrics of regretful poignancy. But there’s a rather funny story about the video, produced by Jae Worthington of Rainy Day Parade Recordings (as was the straight ahead performance video for “Fragile.”)
“I was out riding my bicycle one day at the start of summer and came across this old bridge in Garland and here I am at this old railroad bridge that was burnt up and you can’t cross it… so we started incorporating this bridge. I actually wanted to set it on fire again. We were gonna get some smoke bombs and set them off to give the illusion of it being on fire but there were some pretty sketchy homeless people living out there. They were hooting and hollering like zombies, lurching around… not close to us but their clothes were hanging out there. We didn’t want to be intrusive. Plus, well, zombies…”
The second instrumental, “Moonbird,” is closest to blues on this release, with its moderate pace but the guitar is simply and gorgeously luscious.
“I’ll Be Damned” evokes the Van Hagar-era with it’s heavy boogie bottom end, squealing Van Halen-inspired riffs, breaks of hammer down/pull off, harmonics… the whole bag of tricks that he also credits Andy Timmons and Joe Satriani for influence.
Closing out the CD is“Devil You Know” (my personal fave). One thing I have always been drawn to in Elmore’s lyricism is how he delves into the spookier side of things, and this is my fave hands down: starting with a Alice Cooper-esque “Welcome to My Nightmare” meets Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” intro that morphs into nuanced verses which build to the chorus and the lyrics:
“I own the night, I black the sky
the creature that lights the way with electric eyes
But I won’t be afraid
when the sunshine turns to shade
I’ll shed my skin and start all over again.”
Jason Elmore will never fully shed his blues skin, but Rise Up Lights seems like he’s starting over again in a way, with a solid and surprising hard rock release harkening back to a bye-gone era of arenas, no phones or social media posts or influencers, just good times and great music.
The CD release party for Rise Up Lights is Friday, November 17 at The Kessler Theater with J Isaiah Evans & The Boss Tweed.