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Joel Paterson stands in a grey suit holding a gold-topped vintage electric guitar.

Joel Paterson, Wheelhouse Rag – a review

Adam Sear takes a listen to Joel Paterson's latest and find a "true joy of a record".

Release Date
18 August 2023
Joel Paterson, Wheelhouse Rag
'Wheelhouse Rag' is a true joy of a record which we would thoroughly recommend. If you don't know Joel Paterson's work, do investigate his other, equally impressive, voltage-enhanced recordings.

A conscious departure from his previous electric-guitar-dominated band releases, Wheelhouse Rag sees acclaimed Chicago guitarist, Joel Paterson, embrace solo, finger-picked acoustic originals for the first time on record. These 14 self-composed ragtime and country blues instrumentals – inspired by Paterson’s long-held devotion to Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis, John Fahey and others – combine to create a richly engaging album whose admittedly short running time, clocking in at just 35 minutes, really flashes past.

Visions of Dustbowl America, Woody Guthrie and Steinbeck’s Joad family shimmer on the horizon. Joel Paterson sets out his stall in fine style with album opener ‘Preston Rag’, which transports us to an age when electrified instruments and recorded music were brand-new ideas. Next, the gentle stroll of ‘Nellie’s Dream’ evokes exactly that unconscious state, lazily luring us into a lovely, hazy world conjured by Paterson’s meticulous picking. ‘King Street Breakdown’ picks up the pace, as the guitarist’s fingers dance across the fretboard, artfully building towards an urgent, precision-engineered middle-section.

Paterson’s playing throughout this record is a genial conversation between the bass and treble strings. This really comes to the fore on the excellent ‘Pensacola Stroll,’ a piece lifted skywards by rolling triplets that explode like laughter. An air of mystery pervades the jaunty and intricate ‘Buzzin’ the Frets’ where a cracking pace is maintained until we reach a chiming climax, infused by rich harmonics. Strong melodically, ‘Go Lightnin’’ is a carefully tooled tune chockfull of subtle bends and trebly diversions – most rewarding is the glorious bass breakdown in the mid-section and the ringing build-up as the song closes on a sweet, pealing chord. ‘Grafton River Blues’ slows the pace, deploying the bluesy pull-offs and bends you might expect. Paterson, however, manages to maintain a great sense of originality here and brings proceedings to a delightfully satisfying conclusion.

Title track, ‘Wheelhouse Rag’ – which, for me, wasn’t an immediate stand-out – is, as it turns out, very well chosen. Paterson cunningly slides and picks, showcasing his dazzling technique, and switches time signatures to great effect. A track with its own stealthy charm and one to which I will doubtless return time and again.

For me, ‘Keep On Travelin’’ and ‘Jailhouse Special’ are two tunes that lacked distinctiveness in an otherwise strong collection. I’m sure if you heard either drifting out of the radio on a warm summer evening, you’d feel well-disposed enough towards them, and to be fair, ‘Jailhouse Special’ demonstrates some remarkable guitar skills. Still, it’s a testament to the power of this record that Paterson has managed to imbue 12 of his 14 songs – written and played in a similar style on a single instrument – with their own unique identity. ‘Gizzards and Chess Pie’ transported this writer back to childhood with its riffing similarity to Shakin’ Stevens’ brilliant recording of the 50s classic ‘This Ole House’ – a reminder that rock’n’roll did not simply appear out of nowhere fully-formed and owes its existence to the wonderful traditional music honoured here.

Whilst I recognise that this is very much a matter of taste, the more reflective tunes work best for me and final blues ‘Claremont Blues’ is a deftly handled joy – Paterson’s precise placement of notes leading to a rich, mid-point bass sequence and a breezy ending on lushly singing treble strings. And here we go again – like the Joads on their hopeful way to the Promised Land of California before their American Dream turns sour – doing the ‘Jalopy Stomp,’ a tune that whips along exactly as the title suggests, showing off lightning fretboard work and packed with cheery, tastefully judicious bends. Pacy closer, ‘Call That Gone’ sees Paterson take his final opportunity to showcase the virtuosity stamped across the whole album – if he foregoes here a little of the subtlety of the more contemplative tracks he can be forgiven.

‘Wheelhouse Rag’ is a true joy of a record which I would thoroughly recommend and, if you don’t know Joel Paterson’s work, do investigate his other, equally impressive, voltage-enhanced recordings.

Wheelhouse Rag by Joel Paterson was released on August 18th and is available via the artist’s Bandcamp page.