Steve Howell seems a pretty unassuming guy. Since I Saw You Last, the veteran performer’s third recording project, is a supremely relaxed collection of primarily acoustic songs, all delivered with delightfully assured ease. It’s well-worn territory, but what sets Howell apart is his exquisite choice of material – tunes that somehow sound familiar but turn out to be relative obscurities. Notable are “Red Cadillac & Black Mustache” and “I Won’t Cry,” both wonderful songs, the former pure country while the latter is a fine soul ballad made famous by the late Johnny Adams. “Farmer John” is a rollicking slice of rock ‘n’ roll, and the disc’s closer, “Ready For The River,” is a lovely old ballad of wry acceptance from Gus Khan.
The blues are well-represented, with a cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ King Snake” probably the best-known tune. Rounding out the indigo end of the spectrum are tunes from Frank Stokes (“Downtown Blues”), Mance Lipscomb (“Charlie James”) and Blind Lemon Jefferson (“Easy Rider Blues”). “Since I Fell For You” is the disc’s lone misstep – given the sparse arrangement, Howell’s pipes simply aren’t up to the task, and the (mercifully brief) synthesized strings are an error in judgment.
Elsewhere, though, Howell sticks to lean, uncluttered arrangements, primarily acoustic (and including mandolin and National Tricone guitars) with subtle touches of electric guitars. (Instrumentation is lovingly chronicled in detail in the disc’s liner notes).
All of the players involved are old friends of Howell’s, including Brit Arnie Cottrell, whom Howell met while stationed in South Wales during a tour of duty in the Navy in the seventies – here they record together for the first time. Also on hand are the father and son team of Joe and Darren Osborne on bass and drums respectively; recording took place at the younger Osborne’s Sandbox Recording Studio in Shreveport. Production is ideal, with an exceptional warmth and intimacy that puts Howell’s gruff, unhurried vocals front and center.
And despite fine playing by all concerned, it’s Howell’s easy-going approach that keeps the project on track. His isn’t a great voice, and his range is limited; were he to try harder, things would almost certainly suffer. By taking a relaxed approach that treats the tunes themselves as old friends, though, his music has a lived-in and eminently likeable quality. Not essential, perhaps, but well worth a listen …!