When k.d. lang came out with a “Summerfling” from her album Invincible Summer in 2000, the world was still filled with all the optimism of a new century and we once again seemed to “run on the beach with Kennedy flair.” The federal coffers were filled so high, we were arguing about what to do with budgetary surpluses. The horror of 9/11 had not yet taken place and there was no war of terror, no Homeland Security, and none of the accompanying paranoia and chest-thumping of faux patriotism. College was a sure thing for a good job and home ownership was the guaranteed path for escaping generational poverty and attaining a little wealth. Looking back, it was a golden, if naive time. Now, reviewing the last decade or so of Bizarro universe reversals of everything we thought we knew was true about that time, we are left to resort to fostering a bit of sunshine of the mind rather than of the world. To claim a little bit of inner sun just to keep from losing our collective minds over the loss of so very much we once took for granted. Looking to assist us in that therapeutic endeavor is the longtime soul/funk/rock bluesman, John Bigham, on his seventh album release under the moniker The Soul of John Black.
On The Sunshine State of Mind, the sun is a little more muted than the exuberance experienced on lang’s Invincible Summer. It’s a different era; we know more now, and our music reflects the dimmer glow of that knowledge. Still, when Bigham, formerly of the rock band Fishbone, shyly asks “can we have a summer time thang?” you know he needs to bring a little more light to his dogged days. The lemon tree he promises to squeeze on “Lemonade” is as much tart as sweet, but there is tenderness in the offering. Bigham explains the subdued nature of his optimism, echoing our own, even as he encourages: “We been talking ‘bout sunshine/we ain’t said nothing ‘bout this rain/every drop of that goodness/you know it’s gonna be a little pain…we’ve got to shake/shake off that voo-doo.” There is a touch of romance in the gentle music and smooth soul of Bigham’s voice on “Too Much Tequila,” but it is in the care he experiences by those willing to take his car keys from him and ensure he gets back home to tuck him in, rather than carnal intimacy.[c1] No one asks why he needs to get that drunk in the first place, it’s understood. We can’t sing about an invincible summer anymore; we’ve been beaten up too bad for that. What we can do is sing about surviving and hoping, with a bit more resonance and grit than before.
There is reminiscence here too. It’s hard not to look back, to remember with fondness and a hint of lamentation. With a mature sweetness he croons on “Lenny Love Cha Cha”: “Do you remember the time when/everything was fine and we/used to go out at night...This is a dedication/ to all those occasions when/we had a good time/oh sangria wine/it was always cool to hang/do our cha cha/salsa thang.” As with all of the songs on The Sunshine State of Mind there is a repetition of the central lyrics, too much so really, in an almost desperate insistence that “we get it” and never forget not only what we lost but also how we can still reclaim a piece of sky, if only in the peace of our minds and memories.
The black rocker has mellowed over the years since his Fishbone days and even in the years since Christopher Thomas of Joshua Redman and Betty Carter fame left The Soul of John Black, making the duo a solo act in 2007. Bigham’s had some losses too in an industry that has ousted the black rocker to the Hinterlands, but that doesn’t stop him from rocking out just to show he can. On the boastful rap of the Ol’ G -at-the-bar variety, the funk rock of “Johnny Bear (Give It To Me),” he tells the cougars chasing these young boys out here that when they’re tired of those “rabbits running up under their chin” he’s ready to let them “drive and be their new best friend.” Chockful of silver tongue foreplay lines ready for a blaxploitation flick, Bigham shows he’s doing his own share of delightful recall, back to a time when such lines and a good polyester suit could earn you a panty or two. Later in the set, he repeats the feat twice over on “Magic Woman” and “East LA Lady,” affirming a still there prowess to secure the ladies. There is a bit of insistence here too.
Of course, the transition from the profane to the sanctified is but a track away for the creatives of the world. The Soul of John Black is no different or better in that way, going from bar room to confessional. On “A Higher Power” we learn how those sullen times were endured, what helped Bigham and so many others ease the weight of the world and from whence the offer of a shoulder came. “I was making plans/when the real life hit me” is a line that will resonate several times over in the average person’s life, and characterizes an era some are only just emerging from, daring to consider the sunshine again: “I was feeling good and didn’t recognize the feeling/it’s been so long/I even thought that I was somewhere dreaming.” Throughout these songs there is such tentativeness to embracing joy, an evolved conditioning to wait for the other shoe to drop and the foreboding phone to ring, there is such recognition of our lack of control over so much now, of quiet helplessness. For Bigham, the answer comes in relying on a “Higher Power,” but even as he encourages listeners to do the same, his delivery feels like a resolution wrapped in a resigned sigh more than the celebration of a spiritual epiphany.
Taking a detour, there is more party to be found on the driving swamp blues and guitar funk of “East LA Lady” of a man on the evening prowl for a bit of Latina lust, before Bigham brings us back full circle to the California soul of a cleaner, sunnier nature on the mid-tempo saunter of a “Beautiful Day.” There is a sheepish quality to the charming boy presented on “Beautiful Day,” one again of a different time, when young men, hat in hand, asked young ladies to go ta