Musicians who’ve earned their stripes

Roots Highway

We have dealt on several occasions with these seasoned gentlemen from Boston, never failing to emphasize the sense of preparedness and feeling that emanated from their music – a combination of roots hillbilly blues, dusty country ballads, suburban pub rock, and even a streak of soul (which doesn’t hurt at all). Considered a “regional sensation” on the East Coast, a sort of supergroup for the initiated, with musicians who’ve earned their stripes, The Mystix have come to the classic live album, but avoid the clichés of many such operations. Instead of celebrating the 10-plus years of their career and five previous studio albums, they prefer to pack the lineup with traditional and curious covers, almost as if to prove their origins, their tastes, the make-up of their singles.

The band consists of six members, though on occasion expanding to eight, with a pair of special guests in their rendition of Dylan’s To Ramona. The spirit lies in the voice of Jo Lily, raspy, tremulous, and strangling – a little turbulent and not very graceful, but ideal company for this type of sound. Alongside him, the guitars, played by the brilliant hand of Bobby Keyes (who has collaborated with Jerry Lee Lewis and Ben E. King, among many others, if that wasn’t enough) – a little country blues and a little rockabilly in his approach. Enriching the sound are the harmonica and organ of Annie Raines, and especially the fiddle of Matt Leavenworth, the element that gives The Mystix’ music its more rural accents, conjoining the white and the black. Rhythm and Roots defines the group’s style well, somewhere between Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker; the finale presents a long and vigorous jam on Whiskey and Wimmen and original interpretation of Cry, Cry, Cry so as to rid us of any doubt.

First, there is room for many more evocations of the great river of tradition, all rendered with instrumental competence and great feeling – from the huffing opening of Long John, between honky tonk and hillbilly music, to the dredging up of forgotten classics like Jerry Roll, of antique western swing flavor, and Hard Times by the iconic Stephen Foster (known for Oh Susanna, among others). Recorded at four different locations on the Atlantic coast, Rhythm and Roots sounds like anything but a record from that musical area; the ambience evoked is closer to that of Sun Studio, the road that leads from Nashville to Memphis, between country and early rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s where Carl Perkins’ Boppin’ the Blues or bluesman Jimmy Reed’s Things Ain’t What They Used to Be end up. The Mystix’ soul spirit is also emphasized by the presence of You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had, a piece taken from the more recent work of Steve Earle: an excellent version, rich with groove, and having expanded over time.

In this flurry of citations, one never gets the impression that Jo Lily’s originals are filler; on the contrary – they are concentrated in the first part of the lineup, probably due to Lily’s somewhat wheezy timbre, but in the electric country blues of Midnight in Mississippi, and the gypsy-esque A Lifetime Worth of Blues, the echo of Bob Dylan’s Modern Times and Together Through Life resounds.