It’s a long walk to the centre stage microphone from either the right or left side of the stage where a band’s lead guitarist usually hangs out. Oh sure, it might not look like a great distance physically, but to make the trip from being a sideman to fronting a band involves much more than just taking a few steps in one direction or the other. Think of all those times you’ve been impressed by either a background singer or a lead guitarist in a group and then compare that with how many of them have ever gone on to have a really successful solo career. To be honest the only one who springs instantly to my mind is Ry Cooder. I can’t begin to count the number of people who’ve made me think, “Wow I’d like to hear them do something solo,” only to be disappointed by what they produce on their own.
There’s a big difference between being a really good musician and being a front person for a band. He or she will be the focus of an audiences’ attention no matter where they are standing or what they are doing while on stage. Even when the spotlight temporarily leaves them to focus on another’s solo, it always seems like they are only lending the attention to the other and things only return to normal when the spotlight finds them again. Call it charisma, call it a certain je ne sais quois, call it whatever you like, but there just seem to certain people who are made to be in the spotlight and others who are destined to support them.
The first time I saw or heard Mark Newman was on a telecast of a concert given by the late Willy DeVille on his last European tour. Newman wasn’t a regular member of DeVille’s touring band and in fact had never played with them before. What impressed me the most about watching Newman was seeing how he didn’t try to copy the work of the man he was replacing, but had the confidence in his own abilities to bring his own interpretations to the material. It’s very difficult to parachute into a band and replace somebody who has played with them for years, but not only did Newman not look out of place, he brought a new flavour to familiar material while remaining true to DeVille’s distinctive sound. DeVille must have been happy with him as well, because after his death his widow presented Newman with her husband’s dobro.
Aside from playing with DeVille and others over the years, Newman has also been forging his own solo career and his first release, Must Be A Poney, came out in 2006. Not having heard the previous CD I was intrigued enough by what I had seen him do in the telecast to check out his brand new release, Walls Of Jericho, and see if he was as capable a front man as he is a sideman. As ten of the twelve tracks on the disc are his own material it should provide a good indication of his ability to live in the spotlight rather than just sharing it for a few seconds a song.
For anyone who has seen Newman play guitar it should come as no surprise that right from the first track, “Until The Morning Comes”, his playing is what grabs your attention. Yet it’s not because he’s doing any of the typical guitar hero stuff involving playing a million notes at high speed or tearing a hole through the middle of a song with any of the other pyrotechnics that seem to be the stock in trade of lead guitarists. Instead what you’ll notice about his playing is its clarity of tone and how he has integrated it into the overall flow of each song. His songs aren’t simply excuses for him to unleash blistering guitar solos or to show off in any manner, they are fully crafted pieces of work made up of more than just his own talents on stringed instruments.
I say stringed instruments because Newman is not only a highly skilled guitar player, but also shines on pedal steel, mandolin, and bass and slide guitars. No matter which of these instruments he happens to pick up he plays it with the same clarity of tone and restraint that was so appealing on the opening track. Of course there’s more to songs and an album than just someone’s ability to play their instrument; there’s a couple of things called lyrics and vocals which go a long way towards making or breaking a tune. To be honest, Newman’s vocal abilities don’t jump out and strike you immediately as there’s nothing that marks his voice as instantly distinctive. On the other hand he’s not one of those people who initially impress you with some specific vocal quirk but who lose your attention after a song or two when you discover they have nothing else to offer, including sincerity.
What you’ll learn about Newman over the course of listening to the recording is that while there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly remarkable about his voice, you can’t ignore it. Like his guitar playing his vocals aren’t about wowing you, but about being in service to the material. Whether he has a particular message he’s trying to put across, like “Fire On The Water” and what it has to say about oil spills caused by the recklessness of oil companies, or is being a little more abstract as is the case with the haunting “White Bird”, he doesn’t have any trouble holding your attention. The only exception for me was the seventh track on the disc, “Vacation,” and that was just a matter of personal taste as it wasn’t the type of song I like. That’s not to say it wasn’t as well written and performed as the rest of the disc, it just wasn’t my cup of tea.
Anyone who has heard Mark Newman play guitar, or any of the other instruments he is so highly proficient with, will be well aware of what a talented sideman he is. After listening to Walls Of Jericho you will see he’s equally capable of taking the large step from the side of the stage to the centre. His abilities as a singer, songwriter and interpreter of other people’s material, including a cover of his former band leader’s, Willy DeVille, “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl”, are such that he can more than hold his own in the bright glare of the spotlight. Even better is how he uses the light in order to serve the material and not his ego, sharing it with others, like his duet with Naomi Margolin on “White Bird”, so that the listener is able to get the most out of a song as possible. Mark Newman may not be a name everybody recognizes as a band leader right now, but after listening to this album you can’t help but think that will change in the not too distant future.