Like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, Garland Jeffreys has created a late-career masterpiece.
Garland Jeffreys, the rockin' New York singer/songwriter whom Rolling Stone named the best new artist of 1977. The black dude whom critics once dubbed the next Springsteen. The 68-year-old veteran whose "The King of In Between" was not only light years better than Bruce Springsteen's most recent album, 2009's "Working on a Dream," but was the most underrated album of 2011.
Like Jeffreys himself, this roots-rock-reggae-blues album oozes New York: the energy and intensity, the rhythms and diversity, the despair and hope, the grit and greatness.
"Coney Island Winter," the opening track, is as good a political commentary song as was released last year. A defiant rocker about political leadership and economic hardship, it could have been the theme song for the Occupy movement.
Unlike late-period Dylan and Cash, Jeffreys doesn't sound like a craggy old soul. He sounds vital and vigorous -- just like he did on 1977's remarkable "Ghost Writer" and 1981's standout "Escape Artist."
"I've always been a person with a certain kind of obvious vitality," said Jeffreys, who will perform Friday at the Ritz Theater -- his first Twin Cities appearance in at least a couple of decades. "I'm playful, I get excited. I have a different zest. I'm not retiring. This is the beginning of me performing until the lights go out type of thing."
Since Jeffreys became a dad for the first time 15 years ago, he has toured sparingly (mostly in Europe) and devoted considerable time to his daughter Savannah.
"I'm a father who's there and concerned about my kid," he said before proudly launching into a discussion of her songwriting and performing acumen.
A cult figure at best in the States, Jeffreys has been able to survive financially because his 1979 tune "Matador" became an enduring hit in several European countries.
"It continues to get airplay and still sells and I continue to play there," said Jeffreys, whose "Wild in the Streets" in '77 was probably his best known song in the States and something of an anthem for the skate community. "'Matador' has financed my life, which is very, very fortunate for me."
Indie rocker at last
After stints on A&M and RCA, Jeffreys tired of the major-label game. So he released "The King of In Between" on his own Lunar Park imprint.
Larry Campbell, a former Dylan sideman and now a mainstay in Levon Helm's band, co-produced with Jeffreys. Musicians included drummer Steve Jordan, bassist Pino Palladino, guitarists Duncan Sheik, Duke Levine and Campbell and backup singer Lou Reed, Jeffreys' classmate from Syracuse University and friend of 50 years.
In sound and conversation, Jeffreys comes across as the quintessential New Yorker. Sure, there are musical nods to the Rolling Stones, Curtis Mayfield, John Lee Hooker and Bob Marley, but "The King of In Between" has a Coney Island state of mind.
As a kid who grew up down the block from the iconic amusement park, he thought of the place as his nirvana, an escape into rides and beaches where people of all races got along. (Jeffreys' mother is Puerto Rican, his father black.) As a young teen, he made $1.05 an hour stocking prizes at a Coney Island guess-your-name booth and then he'd go buy a hot dog and fries.
"I was in love with the place," he said, the glee seeping through the telephone. "It was a heavenly spot. Now, it's the saddest place. Big ghettos, lots of crime, violence, murder. It's not right. This is where the song 'Coney Island Winter' is born, talking about the current times, sort of a disappointment of what's happened and using it as a metaphor of the circumstances of this country and what people are going through."
The song that follows is the unstoppably optimistic "I'm Alive," an ebullient mantra for a rocker who hadn't released a U.S. studio album in 19 years. But some new songs -- notably "Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me Home" and "In God's Waiting Room" -- address aging and mortality.
"It's a natural thing," Jeffreys said. "You reach a certain age and you start to think about yourself. This is where the whole issue of family -- my daughter, my wife -- am I going to be a burden?
"I realize with the Hooker song that I have the capacity to look at this with a sense of humor even though it's a serious issue. I think maybe John Lee would have laughed at it, too."
Follow Bream on Twitter: @jonbream