John Fohl came down from Montana in the old century and made himself an indispensable member of the New Orleans music community. His signature gig was a decade-plus-long residence at the Dr. John school of funkology during Mac’s Lower 911 days, a period that included some of Dr. John’s most political writing in the wake of the Katrina flood. Fohl has been much in demand elsewhere as well, teaming up with Johnny Sansone and Anders Osborne for the acoustic workshops at Chickie Wah Wah that turned Osborne’s career around, and supporting a variety of musicians in the area.
Fohl’s popularity as a sideman has kept him from concentrating on his own work, but anyone who has caught his regular Monday night gigs at Dos Jefes over the last 20 years knows what a versatile and engaging solo performer he is.
Hands On You, Fohl’s third solo album, is a classic from start to finish, a step forward from the excellent Teeth and Bones. The songs are all Fohl originals and he has assembled an exceptional band of old friends to record it: Eric Bolivar on drums, Cassandra Faulconer on bass, John Gros on piano and Hammond B-3, Johnny Sansone on harmonica and Rod Hodges on accordion.
The music here is uncategorizable, yet oddly familiar. Some might call it country, others blues and still others rock. It resembles the chameleon style of Neil Young by switching genres mid-stream. Yet it hangs together on the fidelity to the songs, the attention to structure. Fohl’s singing is foursquare, direct. The nuance is all in the music itself, so carefully organized, so meticulously delivered. “This Side of the Grass,” with its unsentimental ruminations on mortality, is really about the carefully articulated layers of guitars, Fohl in his strength as an accompanist to his own perfectly phrased, economical solos. Or the clever arrangement of “Go Again” as Fohl trades choruses with Gros’ honky tonk piano, playing like three different guitarists. Or the stark, stoic “Army of One,” two guitars playing off each other, leading to the ominous line: “Me and my gun/ Me and my army of one.”
The sense of awe and perhaps foreboding attends songs like “Taste Your Tears,” “Shinin’” and “A World Undone,” but Fohl’s music upends any negative thoughts when he starts to exult in exchanges with Gros (“The Right Hand of God,” “Put Your Hands On It”) or Sansone (“It’s Your Time Now”) and Hodges (“I Can’t Wait”). The tracks were recorded at the Music Shed, then mixed and mastered at Esplanade Studios. The result is a clean, full, very professional sound. Altogether this is a truly impressive album by a great instrumentalist who is developing into a formidable songwriter.