Some musicians get by with a killer voice. Others with mad guitar skills. In the case of Jackie Venson, it is no either/or situation. She has greater command over her axe than a champion lumberjack, with vocal versatility to create music that is nothing short of exquisite. The Austin native could go anywhere with her extraordinary talents, and she has set her compass for blues and rock. She recorded a show in her hometown, Jackie Venson Live, and listening to it put me in the mood. The mood to hear it again. And again. And again…
From the first luminous notes of “Show My Light,” the listener is treated to something of pure brilliance. The guitar plays hopscotch while the bass shakes and strides forth. Jackie releases the vocals little by little, funneling them to the listener with a modern sound. This restraint is appreciated, as it creates a complementary mix with the wildness of the guitar. How do you know when enough is enough / how do you know when too much is too much? asks Jackie, after the first funky rhythms of “Real Love” Here she lets her vocal monster play a bit more freely, as the percussion taps along. The guitar adds its own commentary, bringing up several good points with that deliciously dirty sound that I – and many others – fell in love with years ago while sitting on the floor watching a record spin.
Hearing the next track’s beat, that sweet familiar beat, intertwined with the reggae bassline, a giddiness fell over me not unlike Oliver Sacks’s experiences with morning glory seeds. “Lost in Time” is an apt title for a song with such a dreamlike quality. Jackie makes her guitar shimmer, bend, and shiver through melodic solos that enhance the lyrics like salt enhances pork. “See What You Want” is a blues song that rocks into an earth-moving explosion of liberated sound. This is the kind of song that – when heard live – is the point in a show where you’re dancing like a fool, unaware and uncaring, because the sound is just the messenger of that meaty soul of music. Just when I thought my mind couldn’t possibly be blown once more by an already mind-blowing song, a multi-colored bass line broke out, soon to be joined with more luscious guitar, guitar like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Am I in Heaven? No, I’m in Jackie Venson’s world.
The next track on the record, “One Step Forward,” walks along with good-natured bass and blues guitar worthy of a stage of any size. We lose this music when we fall for the dollar sign, Jackie sings. The idea is common sense to some, but completely lost on many. Perhaps those who do not understand should be locked in a room with nothing but this album until they are able to truly hear it. Jackie could live at the top of an isolated mountain, and those in the know yet who self-identify as clueless would travel miles just to see her. Jackie takes her guitar and nudges the listener gently in “Back To Earth,” gradually building in complexity to a rhythmic melody that is rocky, jammy, and when the vocals take hold, surprisingly folksy. If only there were a way to plug an amp into a tree, I would move to the forest and play and play and play until I could produce something a quarter as good as “Back To Earth.” Jackie engages the audience not only with the organic rock (all the kombucha-swilling kids are into it these days) but with mesmerizing songwriting. How Jackie is able to blend such lexical genius with auditory bliss is a secret she shares only with the gods of music.
The guitar builds a tunnel of sound, dark and sexy sound, in “What I Need.” The song roils and riles as Jackie directs the force of her vocals and guitar at the object of her necessity. The song reaches its apex in a stunningly sordid collection of notes, curated in just the right order to make your insides turn to jelly. Jackie coaxes those golden notes out of her magical instrument with a fierce power to rival that of an industrial strength air conditioner in a stifling Texas summer. Magnificent guitar playing never ceases to amaze, and what Jackie does in “What I Need” is truly astounding.
“Instinct” begins, a woman with her guitar, playfully turning out a beat that is fun like orange toenails. The lyrics slide in and flow through, with each verse building upon itself, seamlessly leading into the chorus (Let me show ya I’m your only instinct / Let me show ya I’m the only one / ‘Cause I know that you’re my only instinct / and together we can have some fun) which, having prepared the listener’s ears for something fun, opens the door for instant gratification with the guitar that immediately follows.As “Rollin’ On” begins, the listener is hit with blues like the slight sting of a bellyflop from an undaunting height. As the drums pound that universal beat by which every bluesman and blueswoman and bluesperson measure their measures, the guitar cries, protests, and chortles. The notes pour from the guitar, and it’s so good it hurts. The song left me in a state of exhausted exhilaration, body weak but soul energized.
The final song of the set was “Always Free.” Jackie shifts between calm, falling verses and an unrestrained chorus. As in the previous nine tracks, she says much more with her guitar. The song has a bass and drum-powered groove to it that perpetuates, underlining in rippling electric shades of hot pink and green the message that life will only pass you by if you allow it to. Only wise men see that we were always free, she sings, and then she liberates the beast from her guitar to produce something with the creativity and take-your-breath-away force that could persuade the boring screen addicts that increasingly populate the world to disconnect and venture outside their bubbles.
Jackie Venson is more than a musician. She is more than an artist. With Jackie Venson Live, the Austin native has proven herself to be an ambassador to the ears of Earth sent from the pantheon of the music gods. Her sound has the immense power to take the listener to another world, all the while urging them to live a fuller, more vibrant life. Hit up one of Jackie’s shows, but don’t wear your favorite hat, because she’s going to blow your mind.