When one of your favorite musicians from a bygone era emerges from semi-retirement with a new album, you can find yourself with mixed feelings. Part of you is glad to see they’re still out there, but another part of you is thinking, “Yeah, but can they still deliver?” Peter Lewis, singer, songwriter and guitarist with the legendary 1960s San Francisco band Moby Grape, waited until 1995 to release his first self-titled solo album on the German label Taxim. While a bit overpolished at times, the quality of his songwriting still shone through. Other than two live releases with guitarist David West, also on Taxim, that had been the complete output of Lewis’ solo career. ..Until now.
22 years later, he has returned with Just Like Jack (Steady Boy Records), and it delivers with style and ease. It is brief, with 10 songs running only 37 minutes, but it’s the perfect length to make you want to hit the repeat button when the last track ends. Lewis recorded this at both his home studio near Santa Barbara and in Austin, with Explosives members Freddie Steady Krc (drums, co-production) and Cam King (guitars), plus bassist/engineer Layton DePenning, providing strong, empathetic backup throughout. At 72, Lewis’ voice is still in great form (think Neil Young, but less yowly), and his songwriting is as strong as anything he did in his days with Moby Grape.
Any concerns that he might not still be on top of his game are laid to rest immediately with the first song, “Be With Me”, a heartbreakingly gorgeous love song. It could have fit comfortably on Moby Grape ’69 or Truly Fine Citizen, yet is timeless enough to also sound like a recent composition (which it is). A live version from 2014 at the Berkeley Art House is linked below. Joining Lewis are his daughter Arwen on guitar, granddaughter Olivia on violin, and longtime friend Sam Andrew on guitar.
In fact, all of the songs here have been written in recent years, with the exception of “Sailing”, which was co-written with former bandmate Skip Spence. Spence started it in the early 1970s, and as Lewis says in David Fricke’s excellent liner notes, “[W]hen Skip was homeless in San Francisco… I believe he was watching Neil [Young] in the bay, getting his boat ready to sail. He wouldn’t have recognized Skip then, even though they were friends before. He had changed so much. But he saw Neil on his boat and wanted to be out there too, away from the dirty grip of the city.” Despite being performed at Moby Grape concerts during their brief reunion in 1971, the song was never properly finished until Lewis helped Spence flesh it out during his frequent visits to Spence’s home in the years before his death in 1999. The vocal harmonies, all by Lewis, conjure up the glory and beauty of Moby Grape as they reach the final crescendo.
Lewis has done his share of living out of the public spotlight, and the songs reflect the same needs we all have: to love, to be loved, to feel connected, to belong, to understand why we’re alive, to experience joy, pain, and ultimately redemption. In the middle of all this, he throws in a humorous ode to another former Grape guitarist, Jerry Miller, the upbeat blues track “Screwball”. It fits right in, along with “These Blues”, sung from the viewpoint of a street musician; “To The Hearse”, a lament to a failed marriage; “The Survivor”, a rocker that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Moby Grape’s 1971 reunion album 20 Granite Creek; When, written for a friend battling cancer; and the closing title track, a jaunty two-stepper about a drifter riding the rails “just like Jack [Kerouac].”
As Lewis told me, “I was ruminating on it the other day, and have decided the name Moby Grape was never meant to be the punchline to the joke about what’s purple and floats in the sea. What we were looking for was just a ’60s-ish way of saying, ‘our world is big enough for every one who wants in.’ A grape can also be green and, like the earth, has just enough skin to keep the emptiness out there from getting in here, where the love is.” Lewis has been writing prolifically over the last several years, and it’s encouraging to know that he has enough material of this calibre ready for another album. Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait another 22 years to hear it!
Just Like Jack is also being released on vinyl by Shagrat Records, with an exclusive track, “Valley Music Festival”, replacing “Screwball”. This album will be a treat for Moby Grape fans and everyone else.
Guest review by Richard Derrick.