Jeremy Lyons has three distinct components to his musical personality. There's Lyons the bandleader, whose live shows with his band, the Deltabilly Boys, are raucous blasts of rockabilly, blues and country-infused originals and covers. Lyons the solo guitarist cuts a wide swatch as a serious practitioner of pre-war blues and rags and '60s surf instrumentals. As a songwriter, Lyons writes wry, often jazzy slice-of-life ruminations reminiscent of Leon Redbone. His first three albums spotlighted some combination of those strengths, but his new CD, simply titled Jeremy Lyons & the Deltabilly Boys, captures every facet of Lyons' vision. It's a fortuitous accident.
"It was all recorded at the Boiler Room (studio), but it's from three different, distinct sessions," says Lyons via phone from a Florida tour stop. "We had some tracks left over from the Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch CD, then we did a session right around Jazz Fest 2000 with the rhythm section. I went back in and did a few overdubs, and somewhere in there, I did a solo session. Somehow we managed to fit it all together."
Call it serendipity, but the end result is an impressive document of Lyons' marked artistic growth over the past four years. His 1997 debut CD, Deltabilly Swing, was a solid but somewhat tentative solo affair that offered a snapshot of some of Lyons' influences, with versions of songs by Blind Blake, Lead Belly and Jazz Gillum. A limited-edition release of a live performance from Germany traveled similar territory, but Lyons really started to hit his stride with Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch, as producer Mark Bingham captured Lyons' roaring slide guitar tone, and Lyons' increased confidence in his vocals shone through. On his new CD, that transformation progresses further, as Lyons invests whimsical originals like "You Pulled Me Out" and "Don't You Think (That We Should Think About Love)" with a natural sense of swing and phrasing. It's the byproduct of a packed annual schedule that now contains hundreds of club gigs -- including his regular Margaritaville Cafe gigs and Monday-night slot at the Dragon's Den -- and increased festival appearances.
"Once I started getting on the mic more, it opened up my vocal chords," says Lyons. "Playing with a mic makes such a difference. I try to be more relaxed and more deliberate, and trying to be emotive at the same time. Every time I record myself live and listen, I learn something new."
Singing into a microphone may not sound revolutionary, but it was a major step for Lyons, who cut his musical playing in the Jackson Square street scene. After moving to New Orleans from New York (where he studied with renowned British guitar player and current French Quarter resident Martin Simpson) in 1992, Lyons fell into the group of street musicians that included pianist Scott Kirby and guitarists Augie Jr., Kenny Holladay and Corey Harris.
"At this point, the street experience feels distant, because it's been four years since I quit playing down there," says Lyons. "It was an inspiration and a wonderful place to learn -- I got a lot of lessons in performing. You learn by examples both positive and negative. Now it's more material for me to write about, my memories and experiences of the whole scene, because some of it was so insane."
Those memories have yielded such gems as "There's Gonna Be a Fight (at the Barbecue Tonight)" and the panhandling lament "50&162;." Lyons has also built on that early baptism by fire and developed a singular style of guitar playing that honors his inspirations but also stakes out fresh territory. On his new version of "Steel Guitar Rag," Lyons pulls out all the stops, answering a freight-train slide whistle with progressively faster call-and-response counterpoint and flashes of chicken-pickin' and subtle Hawaiian-style slack-key quotes, until he rides out the song on a manic dual burst of finger-picking and slide flourishes at the four-minute mark. ("I worked on that song for a year," says Lyons.)
Perhaps most notably, Lyons has assembled and maintained a killer band that's steadily built a loyal following on the notoriously competitive New Orleans club scene. Drummer Paul Joseph Santopadre and bassist Gregory Stefan Schatz can navigate any hairpin turns that Lyons leads them into, and Lyons doesn't take his two musical foils and friends for granted. "Paul and Greg and I have been playing really solidly together for four years," says Lyons. "I'm really inspired by both of them, and we bounce a lot of things off each other. They're not hired hands. I have the confidence in the guys to do what they do best, and they have as much to offer to the music as I do."
Coming from a talented bandleader whose star continues to rise, that's high praise, indeed.
- Jeremy Lyons & the Deltabilly Boys' new CD captures a band that's earned a loyal following on the notoriously competitive local club scene.