Slide guitar player Jack Broadbent’s fourth release ‘Portrait’ was a fantastic slab of retro blues. His purist style breathed life into the genre simply by being raw. His straightforward approach was very welcome since, at that point, everyone else seemed to be playing rock with a blues influence and trying to pass that off as “the blues”. Seriously, why listen to Joe Bonamassa when you can listen to something with more more heart and – more importantly – a much greater understanding of the genre? Broadbent’s love of tradition came like a lightning bolt and ‘Portrait’ was an album that deserved a much bigger audience. Over the next couple of years, Jack busied himself upon the gig circuit and released a no-frills live document ‘One Night Stand’ which gave listeners an even better insight as to why he should’ve be considered the most important figure in the UK blues scene at that time.
2019’s ‘Moonshine Blue’ is a fantastic record, but it’s also one that marks a change in style. Perhaps Broadbent thought that the stripped back slide guitar blues – although raw and exciting – could also be limiting, and so, on his fifth album he fuses a couple of subtler elements of his previously explored work with a quieter, folkier mood. The results are often lovely, but creates more of a singer-songwriter’s work. This is also a record that’ll draw in a new audience, which – let’s face it – is something that every good musician wants.
The title track opens the record with a clean acoustic riff, mixed in such a way you can hear Broadbent’s fingers sliding across the frets. This natural sound is instantly appealing, so much so, that it takes a few more seconds before you realise there’s actually been such a dramatic musical shift. A song loaded with simple melodies, it moves from good to great during a fuller sounding chorus where a warm bass provides a very sympathetic counterpoint to the guitar. Broadbent’s own vocal then presents itself in higher registers, occasionally hinting at Jeff Buckley’s much praised work. For the blues fans, a soft slide guitar can be heard crying at various points, but this too seems very different than before, more in keeping with the Americana and roots scene – even with hints of JJ Cale as opposed to the previous love for Elmore James. Lyrically, it’s interesting as a theme of cleansing suggests a rebirth, something that very much applies here.
With a slightly bigger focus on bluesy guitar work, ‘If’ sounds a touch more forthright at first, but quickly slides into a retro number where Broadbent mixes his strident acoustic style with a strong 70s melody. Solid accompaniment throughout from a rolling piano is pleasing and the way Broadbent weaves a simple riff into something busier results in a great listen. It isn’t a great leap of faith to imagine this song on an early Joe Cocker or Leon Russell LP. Even with traces of blues at its roots, although it’s markedly different from the music Broadbent offered previously, it’s absolutely fantastic. A real highlight, ‘Everytime I Drown’ is a soft, finger picked acoustic number where Broadbent’s playing style hits upon a laid back sound that shares a few parallels with James Taylor once more, while his voice occasionally summons the ghosts of Tim Buckley. With no outside interference, this solo performance captures a fine songwriter in his most introspective mood to date and as the track pulls to a close there’s a feeling of having eavesdropped upon something personal and cathartic. Equally reflective and laid back, ‘This Town’ is another stand-out, as it offers a slice of soft, acoustic folk pop. The blend of Jack’s intricate acoustic work and a fine bass brings a melody that sounds so pure. Augmented by soft drums and a vocal best described as a beautiful mumble-cry, this could very much appeal to fans of Willy Porter.
For those approaching ‘Moonshine Blue’ expecting a torrent of slide guitar work, a little more consolation comes from ‘The Lucky Ones’, a track with a busier mood. Backed by drums and bass in an almost jazz/swing style, Broadbent delivers various shimmering slide sounds against a semi-distorted voice. Although starting in a fairly mellow fashion, the number soon escalates with a little more speed and a lot more distortion. At this point of the record, though, there’s something that doesn’t feel quite as natural; it’s almost as if the excessive slide is there to forge a stronger link to the past and throw older fans a bone. This becomes more obvious just before the three minute mark when the volume increases and the main melodies are almost drowned out. Although easily the album’s weak link, it says a lot that this is still good in its own way. ‘Tonight’ mixes folky elements and singer songwriter tropes in a way that again hints at the underrated Willy Porter, but a rhythm section that taps into a classic Fleetwood Mac sound draws everything back towards 70s AM radio material. There’s a great song to be discovered here, and Broadbent’s abilities to convey vocal emotions without ever over-singing – or even raising his voice – creates a real easy cool. It might seem like another musical side-step, but for those who still get a lot of listening pleasure from lots of 70s pop-rock, maybe even Ace and the first two Chris Rea albums might find something to enjoy. Bringing together a tougher rhythm and a semi-distorted vocal, ‘Wishing Well’ goes even deeper into a rootsy sound and although it’s still a shift from the more purist blues of Broadbent’s ‘Portrait’ record, between an assured solo and a belated introduction of a heavier rhythmic chug, it has much bigger musical boots than most of this record. Like ‘The Lucky Ones’, that also makes it feel slightly misplaced. This is clear at the track’s end, once a more forthright voice and dirty rhythms challenge a howling lead for dominance. While some fans will almost certainly pick this as a favourite as it more than proves “old style Jack” is still there, it doesn’t always have the same emotive pull as some of the folkier material.
‘The Other Side’ is another shuffling jazz/blues hybrid, but it works much better than ‘The Lucky Ones’. In some ways it expands on the musical ideas set in place by ‘If’ in that the overall feel is very 70s, but in other ways, it stands on its own. It’s one of the only times on the album where the backing band appears to work harder than the featured artist. The whole thing takes on the mantle of a backstreet bar-room shuffle and although Broadbent’s lead vocals are brilliantly assured, it’s actually a classic sounding jazzy sax break that steals the show. Last up, For fans of pure acoustic sounds, the very gentle ‘Too Late’ is another track where the recording accentuates a live feel; the squeaking frets, the ache in the vocal and deafening silence between sparsely played notes leads to a master class in quietness. [Listeners who enjoy these more reflective tracks would also be well advised to check out Steve Hewitt’s 2019 album ‘Bigger Than Words‘.]
With just nine songs and a playing time just shy of thirty four minutes, Broadbent very much harks back to many classic albums of the late 60s with this record. Its playing time might be a little scant, but it’s the perfect length for the vinyl revival and with that comes a feeling of quality over quantity. With so many different influences leading to a very different record, some of his older fans will hate it and scream “sell out” – the rallying cry of the narrow-minded – but for those able to take things on face value, there’s plenty to love about this record. Jack Broadbent is still one of the most exciting talents to emerge in the last few years; it’s just that he’s now ready to take on the singer-songwriters as well as the purveyors of blues. For those willing to keep an open mind and take this next step of the journey with him, ‘Moonshine Blue’ is full of musical treats.
Read a review of ‘Portrait‘ here.