“There are two times this band is really good,” Jerry Joseph says of his top-flight trio. “One is when we’re supposed to come out and kick ass as a rock band, especially under pressure live, like as an opening act on a big show. The other is entirely the opposite. When it’s me and a snare drum and stand-up bass, and there’s lots of harmony and it’s more of a singer-songwriter thing—sometimes I think that’s the best of what we do.”
He’s right on both counts, of course, but he’s leaving out the third option. That’s when Jerry Joseph & The Jackmormons balance the various things they do well: integrating excitement and expressiveness, thoughtfulness and thrust, poetry and pure power. That’s when the band is really great. That’s when they make an album such as Conscious Contact.
Conscious Contact is the Jackmormons’ fifth release, its Terminus Records debut and first full-length with the three-man lineup that already has made the band a storied stage act. It is the kind of record that confirms the faith of a longtime cult following at the same time that it throws the gates wide to welcome new legions of mainstream music lovers. Produced by Dave Schools (Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic) and engineered by David Barbe (former bassist of the great Bob Mould-led Sugar), it has the rump-shaking rhythmic spirit of the best jam bands, the honest grit and muscle of the finest roots-rock, and the crafted poignancy of such legendary songwriters as Springsteen or Graham Parker. It has moments of towering ferocity, stirring and heart-felt ballads and in the moving, mid-tempo rocker “Kind of Place,” at least one perfect, memory gripping radio single. At least one. All in all, it’s the sound of a veteran band arriving at the ultimate destination: It’s own true identity.
“We were going in to make this a big, noisy rock record and I kept leaning on the melodic things instead,” Joseph says of the recording sessions in Athens, Ga. “This was supposed to be the Jackmormons’ call to arms. But what we came out with is more of a reflection of who we really are.” To put it simply, the Jackmormons are Jerry Joseph on vocals and guitar, Junior Ruppel on bass and backing vocals, and Brad Rosen on drums.
“It was fun to be in Athens,” says Joseph, a Portlander who’s practically become an honorary Southerner through Widespread Panic’s popular cover of his tune “Climb to Safety” and the Jackmormons’ extensive touring with both that band and Gov’t Mule. “It was great to be in a musical community with people that went out of their way to make us feel at home.”
Adding extra flavor to Conscious Contact are stalwart Georgia musicians such as keyboardists Chuck Leavell (Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton) and Randall Bramblett (Traffic), drummer Todd Nance and the distinctive singer Vic Chesnutt, with whom Joseph has toured often in Europe. Guitarist Mike Houser contributes a riveting solo on “Fastest Horse,” and Barbe and Schools chip in here and there as well.
Regardless of who else dropped by to play, this is very much a Jackmormons album. “I’m really proud of my band,” Joseph says. “Making the album with two great bass players in the control booth—Barbe and Schools—Junior really rose to the occasion. And Brad too.”
It’s about the courage to be themselves, bred in part from coming up as a straight-up rock band caught between subcultures. “The cool punk bands thought we were totally uncool, a hippie band,” Joseph laughs. “And all the hippie bands would say, ‘God, you’re so aggressive.’ But these guys have stood by me and watched me have to start over again. And I think you can hear it in how we play.” You can hear it especially on Conscious Contact. So what did the album’s producer, Dave Schools understand about them to draw out such stellar performances? “That we’re a lot more sensitive than anyone would give us credit for.”
Before starting over with the Jackmormons, Joseph led a reggae/rock band called Little Women, based out of Boulder, Colorado, which ruled the Rocky Mountain club circuit for most of the 80s. He began his long series of dalliances with the big time; David Lindley and Ian McLagan guested on their records and Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly ran glowing notices. But the major-label deal they hoped for never came.
Relocated to Portland, Little Women put out a handful of albums on its own, moved away from reggae, and broke up around 1993. Joseph carried on under his own name, and in ‘95 released the superb, Southern-soul-tinged Love & Happiness on a label started by Widespread Panic frontman John Bell. But the career boost that record should have provided was negated by a nasty, and oft-publicized, drug addiction (chronicled in such painfully revealing songs as that album’s “Two Balloons”).
The process of getting clean and taking stock took Joseph to Manhattan, then Montana. Once back in the familiar Rockies, it was time once more to rock. Friends in Salt Lake City talked him into coming to play, and soon the Jackmormons, originally a quartet, were a going concern. The band released the EPs Butte, Mont. 1879 and Cotton, then the full-length album Goodlandia, cut as a live-in-studio radio broadcast. Ironically, by the time the compilation Salt Lake City came out in 1998, Joseph had relocated the band to Portland, to be near his two school-age children.
Joseph’s sensitive side peeked through on a solo album he made in 2000, produced by the acclaimed singer-songwriter Pete Droge, a former Little Women guitarist. Everything Was Beautiful showcased a low-key Joseph, swathed in breathable layers of acoustic guitars, backing vocals and subtle atmospherics. It ranked alongside Love & Happiness as his strongest work to that point. But in yet another disappointment, the label that picked it up for American distribution filed for bankruptcy just after its release.
Maybe that’s what led him to push for a more melodic approach to Conscious Contact. Joseph says that particular song became the title track because “Junior and I thought about it and realized that all of the record was about contact—sexual or spiritual or violent. It’s an AA term, part of the 12 steps, but I tried to steal it away. They’re talking about making contact with a higher power. For me, this song is about making conscious contact with a past, a painful one.”