By Scott McLennan
Walter Crockett’s beautiful album is as multifaceted as life itself.
Did you wallow in the riches the Massachusetts music scene offered in the late 1970s and ’80s? Or did you take advantage 0f New England’s bustling coffeehouse circuit during the ’90s or early ’00s? If you did, there is a very good chance you’ve heard of singer, songwriter, and guitarist Walter Crockett. You may have encountered his music while dancing as the band Zonkaraz played in a nightclub. Or you reveled in its emotional resonance when Crockett performed with wife Valerie Crockett in their various acoustic acts.
Crockett never really fully retired from music, but it has been decades since he last released a recording of original material. Well, he’s back and in a big way with Children So Long, a new album produced by guitarist Duke Levine.
Crockett ushered a teenage Levine, already recognized as a prodigy around his Worcester hometown, toward the spotlight by recruiting him in 1978 to play in the band simply known as Crockett. That group lasted four years before Levine took off on the career path that led to a series of solo records, a tenure in Mary Chapin Carpenter’s band, his joining Peter Wolf’s group, and most recently taking a position in Bonnie Raitt’s touring ensemble.
For this album, Crockett brought a grab-bag of unrecorded songs to the table, some dating back to the mid-’70s, others under construction over the past couple of years. The material is not only separated in time, but also in mood, theme, and texture.
Yet Crockett, Levine, and the group of ace musicians recruited for this project have crafted a beautiful album that is as multifaceted as life itself. And the “tangled yarn” of existence is Crockett’s point: there is good and bad, joy and sorrow, loss and reward, hope and despair — usually a whole bunch of those things jostling around at the same time.
Crockett’s performance is shaped in part through his experiences of losing his wife and musical partner Valerie to cancer and then, two years later, their daughter Emily. After those traumas he went on to find love and partnership. A newspaper writer and editor for many years, Crockett has also never stopped watching and analyzing the events that shape our shared destiny. Thus the record’s 10 tracks serve up storytelling, soul baring, philosophizing, and editorializing.
Strong material deserves the right support, and Crockett gets it here with Levine and Kevin Barry playing guitars, Tom West on keyboards, Marty Ballou on bass, Bill MacGillivray on drums, Chet Williamson on harmonica, Dave Jacques on horns, and the harmony vocals squad of Chuck and Mud Demers and Bob Dick.
Crockett opens with the fun and frolicking “This Old Heart.” From the jump the writing is sharp, and that nimble wordsmithing can be found throughout the album. In “This Old Heart” dabs of wry humor accent a warm tenderness. The upshot is a sweetly sentimental mood that, in less-skilled hands, would have turned maudlin.
This complexity also marks “Fleet of Wooden Caskets,” though to achieve different ends. Inspired by a news report about caskets floating out of a cemetery during a hurricane, the song is infused with environmental consciousness, plucky folk-music dynamics, and poetic imagery. I do not think I have heard anyone inform humanity of an elemental truth in a nicer way: “Hey, get your shit together, or else!”
“Roll On” is the album’s other powerful cautionary tale, an unabashed warning whose fierce apocalyptic vision is set to a stomping gospel-rock beat. Wisely, Crockett saves the blues for when he really needs them, as on “This Time I Can’t Stop Crying,” a reflection on what the musician felt when he heard that his daughter had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.
But, even when tragedies and menace abound, Crockett never loses his belief in fighting the good fight — and that may be the album’s underlying message, neatly summed up in this lyric from the folksy vignette “Carryin’ On”: “Go in peace, go in truth, keep your faith, you can’t keep your youth.” The album’s title track, composed as a grandfatherly message to younger generations, supplies an even more inspiring battle cry: “Never give up on humanity.… Never give up!” Crockett has put his art where his heart is and has come out with a triumphant artistic statement that has literally been a lifetime in the making.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.