Artist: Leo “Bud” Welch
Album: The Angels in Heaven Done Signed My Name
Release date: March 8, 2019
The deal. Star producers cut two ways. They get people to listen to an artist they might not usually investigate and it can create new audiences. Jack White probably introduced Loretta Lynn to new listeners with Van Lear Rose (I know I wouldn’t have heard and loved that album without White’s involvement). Even someone like Rick Rubin brought a new audience to Johnny Cash with his two 1990s albums (although I’m not sure Rick Rubin qualifies as a star). Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys does something similar with The Angels in Heaven Done Signed My Name, the final album recorded by bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch.
I was curious about the album because of Auerbach’s involvement, but also because of the beautiful guitar on the album’s cover. I wasn’t familiar with the blues/gospel artist, otherwise, though. Perhaps I would have found my way to the album, but probably not. So in this example, Auerbach brought someone into the tent. Ideally, he would have stopped with the use of his name, and just gotten Welch’s singing and playing down on tape. That would have been plenty, and it occurs at times on the album, but Auerbach also has a lot of his personal sound in the record, which sometimes steals, or at least masks, Welch’s thunder.
The album is at its best when you’re getting pure Welch. “Right On Time” is gospel driven by Welch’s simple, propulsive guitar. There’s a cool lead guitar line over the song that keeps things interesting, but the track probably would have worked with just Welch’s guitar and voice. “I Wanna Die Easy” is similarly built on Welch’s voice and guitar, with drums, this time, moving the song along. These tracks are some of Auerbach’s best, production-wise. He’s enriching Welch’s spartan style, adding another dimension, but also keeping the spotlight trained on Welch.
Straight talk. Some of the tracks feel like Welch fronting a Black Keys tribute band. “Walk with Me Lord” has a sexy, soulful groove that no gospel artist would feel comfortable with. Plus, it has some of that spacey Black Keys guitar sound, which also feels odd. It’s not a bad track, but it just doesn’t sound like Welch. The same holds for “Don’t Let the Devil Ride,” which is dominated by Auerbach’s guitar work.
The confession. I didn’t listen to this until well after the album came out. I wish I had, because the conversation about the role of a celebrity producer is an interesting one. Is it the role of a producer to document an album or collaborate on it? Was Auerbach trying to create a familiar sound to sell records? What was that the expectation?
Closing arguments. If this had been billed as a Welch/Auerbach side project/band, I’d love this album to death. I’m just having trouble wrapping my heard around how much this sounds like Welch fronting the Black Keys, rather than an elderly artist being supported by his band and producer. Auerbach said most of the album was recorded live, so it’s not like Welch was tricked or betrayed. But given that Welch died before the album was released, it would have been nice to hear more of the artist and less of the producer. Having said all of that, it’s a fun, great-sounding album and I might just be caught up in semantics.
(this was a digital download but the pile is still impressive)
So much amazing music comes out all of the time. I review what I can as quickly as I can, working my physical and digital piles as efficiently as possible, but things fall between the cracks. Rather than giving up on things that are a little past their prime, contemporary-review-standards-wise, I’m going back for the overflow that deserves to be heard — even if it’s a little late.