Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
This was a session that James Jackson Toth had every reason to not show up for. The Southern man was stuck "working" on his 30th birthday, a milestone date that historically leaves most people reflecting on old age, a lack of accomplishments and believing they're starting to get grey hair, wrinkles and the first beginnings of death are setting in like a bird roosting, but he was dealing with a very personal situation that should have halted everything he had to do cold in its tracks. He wore the same kind of haggard and wind-blown - never slept a day in their lives -- look that's seen around the studio every day by those touring folks, living off of beef jerky, Oreo cookies, cases and cases of beer and everything deep-fried that they can get at odd hours of the night post-gig. But he also wore a muddy sort of compromising half-grin. It was accommodating and as warm and genuine as he could muster it up to be, but it seemed to come with a heavy heart pulling all of the punches, leaving the most important aspects of a feel-good smile lacking from the act. Two days prior to the session and his birthday, the rest of his touring band - which included his wife - all bought costly, one-way plane tickets home from the road, leaving the tour and him to decide for himself what he was going to do with a lengthy tour still in front of him. The man, who's played under the name Wooden Wand for a good number of years, decided that he was going to fulfill his obligations, traveling solo in a vehicle that was suddenly way too big for just one person, the echoes cavernously booming and lonely. Toth, on his latest album Waiting In Vain, stripped songs down to their bare minimums and they are aching lullabies just overlapping with songs addressing regrets and personal misfires, the kinds of sour drops and rotten apples that get dropped into our hairs with relative frequency. They're matters of lasting residual, occurrences that don't just pass like sunlight from one direction off the side of the stage in the other direction at the appropriate and agreed upon time. These sorts of matters do not have rhyme nor reason departments where complaints can be filed and reasonable due process is carried out. Shit happens - always - when it's least expected and there are many instances when it comes in storms and those can be even harder to take. Waiting In Vain is a flat gorgeous affair of passionate writing that showcases Toth's incredible lyrical talents. Most of these songs would have been appropriate to record on that day in early September, but he chose to play a batch of songs that he admires in a different way and you can't help but wonder how the mood was working on him, how the birthday and a marriage that used to exist but might not anymore could have played into the song choice for the confused man, who just happened to need to play that afternoon and then evening at a show here in the pizza parlor. It all adds an intriguing dimension to a session that would have been stark and sullen in the first place, but now was aided by an actual air of fresh wounds, a chest full of wasps and their stingers and a desire to get black-out drunk, all getting sloshed together and trying to pick up the pieces as best as they could be picked back up hundreds of miles from where they actually were lying. It was a day where it felt as if more should have been done for Toth, something more than just my buying him a pitcher of beer to celebrate our 30ths together, something that neither of us could decide if it was or wasn't something that should be celebrated. The difference for the two of us was that my wife was waiting for me at home and he wasn't sure what his was doing that night. She was supposed to be here, but she wasn't and it was hard not to feel for the guy. It's even harder listening to him sing "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down," four months later, knowing what was happening to him on that given day.
These songs were recorded on the occasion of my 30th birthday, two days after my band and wife left me in the middle of a tour. If it weren't for the wisdom, friendship and unique perspectives of the entire Silver Jews band and crew, I'm not sure I'd have gotten through this tour at all, so if this session sounds good (I barely remember it), then it's dedicated to them.
James Jackson Toth Official Site
Word on the street is that there are two big WAND releases set for release in early 2009. Keep those ears peeled.