Hesh has been around for many years. When it comes to original music in New Jersey, I can remember as far back as the early ’90s seeing him perform in bars with piano and voice to many approving fans. When you talk to him about his past, his simple answer pretty much tells the story of yet another New Jersey original that not only made an impression but did so as he moved around. I had recently asked him to explain his musical goals, and he had this to say:
“This album is some 20+ years in the making! I began writing the songs when I was still in college up in Boston. The drummer, Izzy, I have known since my high school years, and I would rehearse early versions of the songs in the empty auditorium at the BU Hillel House. Then later, once both he and I were in the New Jersey/New York area, we put a band together and included one of the songs, ‘Love Runs Aground,’ in our regular setlist. Later on, I recorded keys-and-voice-only versions of the songs and put them out as the first ‘Soul In Exile.’ But I always wanted to put them out as full-band versions, and now here they are. Musically and lyrically, though, the songs are not the same as they were in that earlier version. A lot has happened in my life since then, and I rewrote quite a few of the lyrics to reflect that. Some of the music was revised as well, particularly in the song ‘Soul In Exile.'”
So, after speaking with him and getting the CD, I wanted to take a listen and give you my impression on the music, the players and the man behind the musical magic. First of all, I should point out that the cover depicts the wreck of the Morro Castle, a ship that caught fire and ran aground in Asbury Park in September of 1934. The CD cover, created by Natalia Kadish, is a perfect depiction of the aftermath of that tragic fire and the ongoing struggle of a city that has come back from disaster with a whole new set of problems.
The CD starts off with a song called “Convention Hall.” Hesh starts things off with his 1970s acoustic Roy Bittan-styled piano work. His vocal is reminiscent of something off an old Bob Geldof album as he works himself into his next section before the band kicks in. His description of the fabled hall as the “Crown Jewel” and the experiences of this majestic room are fascinating as the group comes in. Drum work from Izzy Kieffer is commanding as he guides the players to their distinct contributions. Steve Lopresto’s bass work is seamless with Kieffer, and P.K. Lavengood seals it all up with top-notch rhythm work. The thing that I love about this song is Hesh’s passionate take on the subject. This isn’t the work of some fly-by-night pop guy looking for a record deal. It’s real deal feel and honest musical expression which makes this song kick ass. His vocal tone whips things into a frenzy before leveling out and firing an organ riff up the middle till the very end.
Up next is “Heard It On The Highway.” The band shifts into second gear with this R&B-styled number. Horn work by Danny Flam is reminiscent of old E Street magic without ripping it off, and it works quite well. Hesh romanticizes his past, singing remembrances of his “Seaside Home” as the band kicks into gear number three. Pianos and brass whirl as P.K. Lavengood churns out some serious Terry Kath leadwork. Hesh delivers some good old-fashioned Jersey Shore funk and blues on this one. Lavengood is back in the back half, churning out some Joe Walsh-styled lead work as the band cooks. Kieffer and Lopresto nail things to the tarmac as Hesh and Lavengood paint the aural spaces before making way for sax guru Steve Peckman. Another top-notch song that should find serious fan support here on the Shore.
The next song up is called “Knocked Out In The First Round.” Pianos set the tone before Lavengood and Kieffer come in to carry things away. Once the band is completely in, Hesh stretches out for a vocal exercise in quality lyrics and tone. Once again his subject is the Shore, but he tells the story of what was and what is left over now. Lots of “used to be” but it’s all necessary and vital. Between holding out for improvement over “Amusement” Hesh tells the real story of what goes on in that little “City by the Sea.” Lavengood’s middle-eight lead break is all him, combining single-string breaks with bends and melodic voicings before Peckman comes in to take things into his direction. Hesh comes back to finish things off as only he can do and it’s a great song.
“Love Runs Aground” is up next. Part analogy of the past, a part prophecy of the present situation, “Love Runs Aground” chugs into the players with weight all its own. Hesh talks of past grief and glory and present corporate greed as he spins his tale of the past and ongoing. Lavengood growls and chugs over the able ministrations of Kieffer and Lopresto as Hesh squeezes everything he has out of the keyboards. Organs whirl and groan under pianos, bass, drums, and guitars, and it’s a keeper for sure.
“Soul In Exile” takes the stage next. Slow, laid back and in the pocket, “Soul In Exile” is a slinky, blues-based rocker in the vein of Billy Bob Thornton and his band The Boxmasters. Organs lay hazy trails over solid bass and drums as Lavengood chops and back pull across the strings for his country tone. Hesh has a great vocal tone, and it comes across like gangbusters here. The song segues into an upbeat, reggae-styled tempo as horns once again blast across the field of the piece. I should mention the fact that Kieffer is responsible for the brass arrangements on this record and he did a hell of a job there as well. Hesh turns things around in the last section, bringing it back to the country, Nashville meets Jersey-based feel of the first part.
“Rock And Roll Chamber Of Commerce” is up next. Guitars chug over bass and drum work as Hesh comes in with ultra-low vocals before coming into the second verse. “We’re Gonna Buy That Old Building” starts things off with majestic hopes and dreams. Recording studios and musical fame frame this out with wishful dreaming and aspirations of hope. What I like about Hesh’s creative direction is the no-holds-barred feel of the entire disc. He manages to pay homage to the past while cutting his own musical swath through the present-day situation. It’s not an easy thing to do. Lavengood coils and hisses guitar magic with chords and melodic voicings as the rest of the band switches time signatures and style with all the grace of King Crimson.
The last song on this too compact disc is called “Blessing Of Hope.” Returning to his perspective of the past, Hesh tells the tale of the “Holy Wreckage” from the past. Amusement parks decaying into the ground combine with impotent master plans of the future as he longs for the rebuilding of the carousel from the good old days. The termination of the East Coast destruction is the theme here, and it means a lot to me. Drums, bass, and pianos lay an amazing background over this song of regret of the present and the forlorn missed days of the past. This is a strong statement of what was good and what sucks today, and it’s a solid piece. Lavengood’s lead break is both beautiful and sad, laying framework like handcrafted wainscoting on a decaying mansion doorway. Pianos tumble into the ending along with Lavengood’s skilled six-string work as the band heads for the barn. Beautiful work by all on this song and record. The brass work (courtesy of Danny Flam) shines brightly here as well.
Hesh continues to shine bright and create musical gems amongst his peers, and I always look forward to his next musical indulgence. This record not only proves that he still commands presence amongst peers, but it demonstrates the seasoned work of a songwriter with plenty left to say.
If you want to grab a copy of the CD and hear Hesh live, you’ll get your chance soon. He will be appearing at the Singer Songwriter Festival in Cape May on March 25, and the next day (March 26) he’ll be at The Saint in Asbury Park (in the afternoon) for his official CD release party.
The physical album is available at CD Baby and is downloadable at iTunes. Head over to the Hesh’s site for more information, plans and shows: www.theheshinc.com.