Jerry Joseph & The Jackmormons

For more than 30 years, Jerry Joseph has been strapping on a guitar and chasing down truth, understanding and soul with a tenacity and resonant skill that mark him as a hard charging kindred spirit to Joe Strummer, Warren Zevon and Patti Smith. While not a household name or critic’s darling, Joseph is the archetypal musician’s musician, something resoundingly clear on his sweeping new double album, Happy Book. Captured with muscle and blood by Joseph’s longtime trio the Jackmormons, this latest chapter in his long, strange journey flows like glowing quicksilver through the modern psyche, where war and disaster wrestle with hope and faith and sometimes the best option is to sashay down to the local disco to mambo with the chicks with dicks just to remind one’s self that you’re never too old or too dead to learn a couple new tricks.

Happy Book (arriving March XX, 2012 on Response Records) presents the Jackmormons at their most diverse and confident, a record with a wide swing that dexterously moves from whisper closeness to Technicolor expansiveness. Many of the songs on Happy Book were written in Mexico right after Joseph’s father passed away but then left wide-open so the band could be part of the writing process, producing an emotional and sonic wallop fueled by the tightest, tastiest playing Joseph (guitar, lead vocals), JR Ruppel (bass, backing vocals) and Steve Drizos (drums, backing vocals) have ever captured in the studio.

“The reason I play in this band, the reason I go through what I go through to be in this band, is there’s always a point when we’re onstage that I think, ‘Man, if there’s a better fucking three-piece rock band in America I don’t know who they are.’ It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does it’s a reminder that this is an once-in-a-lifetime band,” says Joseph. “After 17 years, this album brings together a lot of things I’ve always wanted on a record. I’ve wanted to make a double record since I was a kid. This sounds like a band that’s been together 17 years and evolved along the way.”

Joseph first came to prominence in the mid-1980s with still-beloved cult band Little Women, a reggae-rock proto-jam band that dominated the Rocky Mountain club scene for nearly a decade, and notably helped break jam giants Widespread Panic, who opened for his band before rising to prominence. To this day many of Panic’s favorite concert staples were written by Jerry Joseph, including such blazing epics as “North,” “Chainsaw City” and “Climb to Safety.” Today, Joseph neatly describes Little Women as “a mash-up of Burning Spear and the Grateful Dead dressed up like the New York Dolls.”

The other two key ingredients to the Jackmormons, JR Ruppel and Steve Drizos, are also musical lifers working steadily for decades both as sparring partners to Jerry Joseph and elsewhere. Drizos was a member of acoustic Dexter Grove from 1995-2004, who performed over 1500 shows nationally. Drizos produced the live Jackmormons record Badlandia and co-produced Happy Book, as well as performing and recordings with such luminaries as Dave Mason and Jim Capaldi (of Traffic), Widespread Panic, The Decemberists, moe., Merle Saunders, Eric McFadden, as well as dozens of local Portland artists and bands. Ruppel has recorded and played live as a solo artist and with Fabuloso and Moheynow. As far as being part of the Jackmormons, Drizos says, “I love the intensity of this band, the songs and live performances. Playing drums for this band sometimes feels like driving a runaway train about to fall off the tracks at any moment but always manages to arrive at the station.”

Former Little Women percussionist Gregg Williams (Dandy Warhols, Blitzen Trapper) produced Happy Book, incorporating horns and other choice elements from guests Jenny Conlee-Drizos and Chris Funk (The Decemberists), Eric Earley (Blitzen Trapper), Dan Eccles (Richmond Fontaine), Wally Ingram, Little Sue Weaver and Paul Brainard into the trio’s tight-knit chemistry to create an expansive work that captures Joseph’s startlingly broad musical range in a roughly graceful, swiftly intoxicating way.

“Columbia Record Club used to have 20 records for a penny and I filled out form after form, and these boxes of records came to my house and my parents would flip out. Those were my influences,” says Joseph. “I was a kid, so I was as into The Monkees as I was The Beatles. Then, my mother would tell you, it was all over on my 9th or 10th birthday with [Black Sabbath’s] Master of Reality and Steppenwolf Live. Then at 12, it was jazz. I saw every jazz act that toured in the 70s – Herbie Hancock and Tower of Power after we went to see Steely Dan. All that and then my older babysitter bought me Exile on Main Street and I saw [Bob Marley and] The Wailers in 1976 and moved to New Zealand. And then The Clash came out and changed my life. But I also loved ZZ Top and all those guitar bands. When I lived in New Zealand, I sat in my window and read Lord of the Rings while listening to prog like Gentle Giant and Camel. Later, I learned a lot from Chris Whitley touring around Europe with him.”

As 2012 gets rolling, Joseph is steadily extending his global reach, taking advantage of the Internet’s ability to find audiences worldwide with tours in Southeast Asia, Europe and elsewhere, another hyper-gifted American singer-songwriter finding appreciation beyond his own country’s borders. However, Happy Book may be the perfect introduction to American audiences that have yet to discover one of the most striking, talented musicians of the past quarter century, an endlessly insightful rabble-rouser and back street shaman whose creative tendrils extend beyond the Jackmormons into extensive solo work, a duo with percussionist Wally Ingram, rangy rock juggernaut Stockholm Syndrome (where Joseph plays with Widespread’s Dave Schools, Bay Area guitar marvel Eric McFadden, Gov’t Mule’s Danny Louis and Ingram), and a host of unreleased work.

Despite the sort of roadblocks and turns of fortune that usually crush most musicians, Joseph survives, and in fact, thrives in a way that’s heartening and stirring on Happy Book, a clear-eyed survivor’s hymnal.

“I’m lucky. I work. I’ve never had to play in a cover band. I’ve never had to wear a funny hat,” says Joseph. “Perhaps because of the lack of traditional success, I’ve put out about a record a year, plus all the stuff that’s never come out, and it’s kept me creatively honest. I don’t rehash my past. I don’t repeat any of my old hits because I don’t have any big hits [laughs].”