Mo Leverett

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Mo Leverett - These Are The Days

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8.0
Mo Leverett - These Are The Days
Release Date: Dec. 16, 2014 
Record Label: Justice Road
This review was written by an AP.net staff member.
If the goal of a singer-songwriter is to draw a listener inward and make then more ruminative, then by all accounts, Jacksonville, FL’s Mo Leverett has achieved said goal. On his most recent album, These Are The Days, he provokes deep thought and mines giant issues, most of them of a spiritual and divine nature. At times, the disc is tedious, overly pensive and melancholic, but in its winning moments, These Are The Days announces Leverett as a newcomer to the always expanding First Coast music scene. Leverett draws his strength from his sandpapery yet soulful vocals and his thought-provoking lyrics. From start to finish, These Are The Days is spartan, anchored by mostly Leverett and his acoustic guitar. Producer Scotty Alderman adds some sonic touches sporadically and naturally the album’s strongest songs are ones with more than just Leverett and his guitar. 

The album opens with the title track, a weary and ageless tour-de-force that pretty much sums up who exactly Leverett is as a song- writer. Chances are if “These Are The Days” does not move you, then Leverett is probably not your cup of tea. The album’s first apex moment comes in the form of “Lori Lee,” a distinctly Southern effort buttressed by banjo and an organ. Of all the songs on These Are The Days, “Lori Lee” is the one with the most accessibility and probably should be circling the ranks of AAA radio. Proving that he’’s more than just placid acoustic fare, Leverett up the sonic ante on the bluesy “All the Same,” which opens with rich strumming and gradually thunders its way across the speakers before howling to the finish. “All the Same” is an absolute charmer and has the kind of charisma and swagger that would make Robert Cray quite proud. If These Are The Days has a weakness it is that Leverett never returns to the glory of “All the Same” and instead sticks to quiet contemplation. 

The second of the meditative lot (and there are quite a few) is “Underneath a Silent Sky,” a prayer-like effort that serves as a study in restraint. On the heels of “Silent Sky” is the mid-tempo “My Brother,” a meandering effort that features light organ and a definite gospel bent. There’s also a hopeful lift to it and it marks one of the only moments on These Are The Days where one feels some sense of joy. That’s not to say that These Are The Days lacks ebulliency, this is just a deeply pensive work and forces the listener to sit and think. Cursory listens are not recommended. 

Arguably the strongest of the quiet acoustic efforts is “Only Love,” a haggard, whiskey-soaked ballad that points towards Leverett’s inherent talent as a singer-songwriter. Songs like “Only Love” have a resonance and a potency that few if any can match. Unfortunately, “Only Love” also serves as the end of the album’s very strong first half. 

The second half of These Are The Days opens with the ho-hum “Rabbi Here,” a strong lyrical effort but an absolute chore from start to finish. Leverett picks up the pace on the vernal and winsome “Keep Me Around,” a stellar cut of first-rate folk music that would make the editors of American Songwriter quite pleased. Unfortunately, These Are The Days stalls on the deep blues cut “Hold the Sign.” While the song’s intentions and motifs are solid, the song itself just never seems to gain any traction and much like “Rabbi Here” wallows in inconsistency. 

Cognizant that he could lose the listener with another weak cut, Leverett goes for broke on “You Belong To Me,” a supple and ageless valentine that finds his leathery exterior turning velvety and saccharine in the most engaging of ways. Xylophone and bells creep their way into the frame as does a well-placed violin and when all is said and done, “You Belong To Me” has cemented its place as one of These Are The Days’ finest tracks. 

Leverett has never shied away from his love of worship music and has performed in numerous churches throughout his career. That love of worship comes out in spades in both “Little Katherine” and “I Will Worship You Alone.” Of the two, the former is strongest as the song rises from a bland opening into a richly layered conclusion complete with some well-positioned lap steel. Of all the cuts on These Are The Days, few have a finish as strong and as riveting as “Little Katherine.” 

These Are The Days closes with “Crochet,” a lyrically creative effort in acoustic rumination but one that sounds very much like most of its predecessors. If Leverett has a flaw is that far too many of his songs bleed together. If he had chosen instead to construct an album of nine or ten songs, the entire disc would be an absolute triumph. Those mistakes aside, These Are The Days is a strong work from an artist who is looking to reinvent himself in his new Northeast Florida environs. 

After many years spent in New Orleans, Leverett is eager to embrace new opportunities. If he can build on the winning moments of These Are The Days, there’s a very good chance he’ll craft an album that will leave the masses breathless. Not convinced? Dive into songs like “You Belong To Me,” “Lori Lee” "Little Katherine" and “All The Same” and revel in the mastery. Though no one can argue Leverett’s fervent love for placidity, the beauty and grandeur in his standout tracks are exactly why Leverett is more than worth your time and attention.

These Are The Days: Mo Leverett

"Wherever we are, there is always something of beauty that bursts and begs notice – landmarks on our expedition of redemptive return.” Mo Leverett

 

There is a unique joy in watching someone living in passionate pursuit of life, fully embracing the joys and trials that come with traversing this earth. Beauty takes on so many different forms based on the intricacies of each personality, each gift and talent dispersed, developed, and shared with the world.

Art is not only a painting. It isn’t confined to the space of a page or a canvas. It’s not always wrapped in a stanza, or a lyric, or a ringing dissonant chord.

Art is found everywhere, in all of life. It’s a sunset, a crying baby, the mother humming gently into tender ears. It’s in the sweat of a laborer, fighting for his daily bread. It’s in the dusty feet of the mother who walks miles for water, the father who combs the fields for food.

Art is life. Breathing, circulating, moving in tendrils, in swirls throughout the ebb and flow of daily living. Art is alive and tangible, though you cannot always see it or touch it. You feel it, and you know it, and you recognize it when you’re in its presence.

Mo Playing 1

 

Mo Leverett is a man who sees the art in life.

He’s a musician “striving for poetic beauty and force, for authenticity and passion.”  An artist who sways toward the folk and blues genre continuum, Mo seeks to embrace lament as an ordinary part of life, and his music reflects this. In his words, “The thread of compassion is woven through, born of living most of my life among the poor or being materially poor myself these last years.”

Currently, Mo is busy putting together his 12th album. Life, redemption, poverty, family, love, grace, suffering and justice are themes that commonly appear in many of Mo’s original songs, and his current album, These are the Days, continues to draw inspiration from his life in urban ministry, the repercussions of Hurricane Katrina, divorce, personal hardship, recovery, healing and remarriage.

I could keep talking about the album, but I think it would be best for you to hear from someone who knows him well. His producer, Scotty Alderman, shared these thoughts:

Mo is an original – part prophet, part preacher, part troubadour.  His gruff voice is powerful and full of soul, while his lyrics paint vivid pictures and evoke strong emotions from the listener. Always affective and potent, Mo can say very hard things in tender ways, and tender things in easliy relatable ways.

He writes about pain, loss, injustice, love, and gratitude from a very deep place. His hard-won, hard-earned wisdom is matched with a voice suited to express it. Mo’s music is distinctly American, rugged and pioneering, more specifically steeped in the South, in the soulfulness of Louisiana. The lyrics are genuine, sincere, ernest, vulnerable, and laced with poetic prose, if that makes sense. I think everyone should have the opportunity to hear him – he’s that sort of singer-songwriter. Mo could be one of the greats – I actually think he already is.”

For more insight into Mo’s heart, and to gain a better understanding of his skill as a writer, I urge you to read his post, The Joy of One Thing. It’s an honor to be a part of Mo’s journey as he strives to create art that is an honest depiction of the life he’s lived and seen. In his words: “The greatest joy that I receive from doing records is the opportunity to play with serious musicians and for them to enter the inspiration sector in one of my little songs. But I am also genuinely encouraged that my music is in any way a source of help and comfort to others.”

Paste Magazine

In New Orleans, locals had always talked about “the big one,” but when it came, it caught musician Mo Leverett by surprise.

“I’d forgotten about it and taken my kid to a babysitter’s class,” he recalls. “When I dropped her off they said, ‘look, we’re gonna cut the class short and cancel tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘You don’t know about the storm?’ I said, ‘what storm?’ They said, ‘Katrina.’ I said, ‘Katrina? Katrina was a little Category One.’ They said, ‘Well, it’s a Category Five now.’”

Leverett lived and worked in the city’s Ninth Ward, one of its lowest-lying—and most impoverished—districts, where he led a ministry that operated a school for at-risk children, hosted a health clinic and participated in small-business- and community-development efforts. Now, 15 years of work—begun by Leverett but now carried on by a staff of 50—lay directly in Katrina’s path. In a few days, the Desire neighborhood—only feet from the Industrial Canal, site of one of the major levee breaks—would be almost completely underwater.

Fighting an initial urge to stay so he could be on the frontline of relief efforts, Leverett and his family departed ahead of the storm, along with others from the community. “I looked at my children and stared at them for a period of time, and I realized, just do the safe thing for them because they can’t make the decision for themselves.”

Just weeks after the storm, Leverett’s latest, Blades Of Love, was released—a pre-planned event, but one fortuitously timed. It’s a gritty slice of hard-won hope, with Leverett’s growling, Macon, Ga.-bred voice and acoustic guitar augmented by horns, piano and upbeat grooves that provide touches of his adopted Crescent City home.

Leverett now shakes his head at the seeming prescience of lyrics like “Trouble always finds you / Tribulations rise / But love is what designed you / For undiscovered skies.”

“Frankly, I wrote all of this stuff before Katrina but I found so much of it relates to Katrina,” he says. “I talked about flood, I talked about storm, I talked about wind, I talked about loss, and listening to it even myself now, I’m moved. To think not so much about how well I did … but the themes themselves of ‘things aren’t what they seem,’ and ‘troubled times are your best friend,’ and ‘you should welcome these types of events into your life.’

“After you’ve endured it, that’s the last thing you’re thinking, but I know that one really doesn’t grow in an environment where he gets what he wants. We only grow when we lose and we suffer and we sacrifice and are hurt or wounded. If there was a theme, it would be something along those lines.”

Justice and Mercy
Despite his status as a Christian minister, and probably owing to his long presence in a neighborhood once called the “worst place to live in America,” Leverett doesn’t spend much time trafficking in churchified language, particularly on his latest. His songs—delivered in an earthy drawl similar to Alabama native Pierce Pettis—strongly resemble his heroes Bruce Cockburn and Mark Heard.

“After my first CD [in 1992] was picked up by a Christian label, one bookstore owner wrote the label and said, ‘we love his music, it’s beautiful melodically, but why is he ashamed of Jesus?’ … I am not ashamed of my faith or anything, but frankly, I don’t like using music as a sermonette, which most Christian music [has] become.

“I think that it’s fairly unmistakable when you read it—this is a spiritual guy, and you might expect that I’m a Christian, but like on the project If You Know What I Mean, I write a song called ‘Little White Lies’ and it’s about the history of racism, and writing it from the perspective of a black guy, well, I think Christians ought to be talking about that. I write about the things I care about and I care to talk about.”

Like Cockburn, the thing Leverett cares most about is the poor, the dispossessed and those at the mercy of the world’s power brokers. He stops short of rocket launchers, but justice nonetheless is an insistent concern. In his music, it’s what draws him to look for humanity in even the most unlikely places.

On “Schizophrenia,” Leverett draws upon his experience to put himself in the skin of a street person. “Paranoia / Coming for ya / Will destroy ya / We talk to myself / We sleep in my clothes / We’re taking our steps / Careful and slow.”

“I’ve come to realize that none of us are that far off from being crazy,” Leverett says. “And there are certainly times when I feel closer than others, where I’m struggling for my sanity in the midst of trying to change the culture or the social construct under which people are living. I mean, it’ll drive you nuts and leave you talking to yourself.”

A Beachhead of Hope
Desire Street Ministries was at the top of its game prior to Katrina’s devastation. In one of the toughest neighborhoods, it had established a beachhead of hope, with simultaneous efforts underway in economic development, education (via tutoring and its own private school), housing and even healthcare, partnering with CURE, a local association of churches, to maintain a pediatric clinic. It had also developed many of its own leaders from within the neighborhood.

In Katrina’s wake, almost all the local work was put on hold. Staff homes (including Leverett’s) were flooded and ruined. Desire Street Academy, the school, was intact but won’t be usable for some time, and it has since moved to Destin, Fla., as a boarding school for the present time. The future is unclear, but Leverett says it’s bound to inspire more songwriting.

“I’ve been moved to write and I’ve not had the opportunity to do it. … I’m working on a few things right now. I got a phone call from the Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana. They’re wanting to produce [my song “Louisiana”] with Aaron Neville and maybe some others and make it the state anthem. So they wanted me to write a bridge, and I wrote the bridge, so we’re gonna go into recording soon.

“I’ve always said that that song was written for Aaron Neville to sing. I’ve said that to a lot of people, and now it may just happen. We’ll see.”

For more information on Desire Street Ministries or to contribute, please visit www.desirestreet.org. Mo Leverett’s music is available online at moleverett.com, and all proceeds benefit the Desire Street charity.