It’s Saturday night at the dark-timbered Mine Shaft Tavern, in Madrid. The long, scarred wooden bar is elbow-to-elbow and the tables are full, but nowhere is more crowded than the dance floor. Onstage, Joe West strums his battered acoustic guitar, nodding time to his band, the Santa Fe Revue, who fit him like a well-worn work boot polished up for the weekend. Beneath sweet country-derived harmonies, a driving two-step beat forces the giddy, sweaty audience into a dilemma: stop and take a drink, or dance till delirious?
With a smile cracking under his square-framed glasses, West looks the part of an earnest country-music journeyman in a string tie. In fact, he’s one of New Mexico’s most highly regarded musicians; in 2010 he was voted Best Male Vocalist and Best Songwriter by readers of the Santa Fe Reporter. He has toured throughout the U.S. and Europe, and shared the stage with musicians as diverse as bluegrasser Peter Rowan and the Violent Femmes. West is one of those local heroes whose fans think nothing of traveling halfway across the state to catch him crooning at a remote roadhouse.
The song “Jam Bands in Colorado,” is a characteristic blend of country chords, unexpected instrumentation (here, a muted trumpet), and wry humor from the album The Human Cannonball (2005). In it West offers an apt self-portrait in his warm, grainy tenor: “’Cause I’m a country singer, a little punk, rock and roll / I got a beatnik poet somewhere in the soul.”
West’s early influences were punk, glam, and folk musicians such as the Sex Pistols, David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen. But when a friend introduced him to the dark-themed acoustic concept album Juarez, by country-rock pioneer Terry Allen, West’s path was suddenly lit: “I started seeing the songwriter and country music as something very cool.”
Striking out into the uncertain world of being a musician did not upset his Santa Fe family, whom he describes as “New Mexico characters . . . part of my family were ranchers [in Lone Butte], and the other part were hippies and artists. I suppose I got that free-spirit thing coupled with a rancher’s work ethic.”
Such traits come in handy when it comes to raising his six-year-old daughter, working construction, and performing live while writing and recording a new album. Its working title is Blood Red Velvet, and it will be released in mid-December. His ninth album is another canto in the epic poem of snake-bit heroes, flawed love, and existential redemption that West has been crafting since his 1999 debut, Jamie Was a Boozer. (That one earned a Best Male Vocalist award from the Austin Chronicle.)
Blood Red Velvet is a character-rich exploration of northern New Mexico’s dark mystery and magic. Impulsive choices become life-altering, small details are anchored to significance, quick lines recur like favorite characters. Faith, and its role in the culture of New Mexico, is an essential element in the songs. “There is a lot of faith, in either New Age ideas, Catholicism, Buddhism, Native folklore, Native gods . . . but also it is hand in hand with a lot of violence,” says West. “That is what I hope to capture. The faith juxtaposed against violence and heartache.”
West has been recording the new album at Frogville Studio, in Santa Fe. The studio’s Big Room is an airy, white-adobe vault of high ceilings crossed by vigas. Often starting with ideas he’s stumbled on at home with his four-track, West takes advantage of the modern digital facility’s vintage microphones and tube amps, which create what he calls “sort of a lo-fi sound which, when it comes sparingly, is really awesome.”
On Frogville Studio’s mixing board, columns of LEDs pulse up and down, measuring the progress of sound through time as West and Santa Fe Revue guitarist Ben Wright polish a new song. Implying a cavalcade of acts, West named his band the Santa Fe Revue because “we started to do these large shows in Santa Fe with a cast of many talented local Santa Feans. There is a set band, but the act will continue to feature guests and theatrical elements that lend to its collaborative nature.”
West and band honed their new batch of songs on a fall tour of the Midwest and New Mexico. “The folks that I am playing with in the Revue are the best musicians I have ever worked with,” says West. “There is magic with this lineup. Lori Ottino [melodica] is exquisite, Margaret Burke [bass] is a rock of substance and beauty, Ben Wright is profound, Arne Bey [drums] is like a well-oiled machine on LSD, and Karina Wilson [violin] is gorgeous, sassy, and incredible.”
Blood Red Velvet, a story with multiple plotlines and points of view, is energized by the tension between its dark, knowing lyrics and jaunty melodies suitable for a dizzy night of two-stepping. It’s also a love suite, painted in a bruised palette of maroon, indigo, and navy. West compares its tone to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, written after the breakup of Dylan’s marriage, which was “often sung with a lot of bitterness, but it also has a timeless quality, songs that echo through the decades.”
The new album is a return to both “the Joe West story” and New Mexico. In recent years, West has been making journeys to diverse landscapes for the inspiration and recording of his albums. Last year’s Aberdeen, S.D. revisited a piece of West’s small-town past; in 2010 he explored alternate dimensions in Xoë Fitzgerald: Time-Traveling Transvestite, a Bowie-inspired genre- and gender-bending epic renowned for its wildly theatrical live performances.
For a storyteller for whom setting is essential inspiration, whose characters grow through cracks in the familiar pavement, West’s return to his hometown is inspiring and meaningful. “Writing an album inspired by Santa Fe is different than the others because my personal history is entrenched here,” he says. “I grew up here, but now I have come back and am raising a family here. This album will be much more personal.”
The audience is more personally involved as well. In the dark, laughing maw of the Mine Shaft, cowboys and bikers and hippies and hipsters scream in unison for another encore. Exhausted though they are, Joe West and the Santa Fe Revue treat the dancers to one more fast rocker before waltzing everyone into the grand finale of “Goodnight, Irene.” The crowd can’t choose between drinking, dancing, or singing along, so they do it all at once.
Andrew Wice is a writer living in Madrid (andrewwice.com).