Mark “Pocket” Goldberg – Off the Alleyway (2010)

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by Nick DeRiso

Mark “Pocket” Goldberg’s Off the Alleyway, a rootsy Americana recording with the flickering neon-soul of a blues joint, stays well away from the beaten path.

His sound is as eclectic as the country’s rolling byways, bringing in low-country pedal steel, back-pew harmonizing, the nostalgic wheeze of an accordion, and crunchy late-night guitar growls.

Rumbling this musical gumbo up to a boil is Goldberg’s bone-deep baritone. The Los Angeles resident is known for his cat-gut doghouse bass work, but the real foundation of Off the Alleyway is that voice.

Goldberg sings like he gargled with gravel, then washed it down with sour mash. This record is no trip to the bottom of a shot glass, though.

Weather-beaten but strong, Goldberg instead serves as a never-bowed, often humorous guide through a series of self-penned misadventures in love, and what comes after.

Helping out are a great group of notables from Goldberg’s long history of studio and road work with the likes of Buddy Guy, Canned Heat, Mick Fleetwood and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, among others.

That starts with “Down Home Woman,” which features legendary R&B drummer James Gadson, who has appeared with Bill Withers, the Temptations, Freddie King and Quincy Jones, among many others.

Guitarist Nick Kirgo (co-producer of Off the Alleyway with Goldberg and drummer Debra Dobkin) then rips off a series of crisp, incisive licks on what turns out to be a good-natured celebration of a passion that’s as simple as it is true.

But, more often, Goldberg’s tunes take a turn for the worse, a theme that runs through “This Train” and “Before You Go.” Gadson returns on the B.B. King-sounding “Lost Another One Blues,” complete with a muscular assist from the Texicali Horns and Barry Goldberg’s old-school Wurlitzer piano solo.

“This Train” turns into a kind of zydeco-gospel hymn to long goodbyes after keyboardist David Frazier switches to accordion while a bourbon tabernacle choir of singers including Teresa James and Billy Watts wails away. “Before You Go” is barbequed doo wop, a lost romantic lyric dripping with deep-fried soul.

For all the tears shed, Goldberg isn’t about to wallow in the long shadows of heartbreak, snapping back with a series of delicious kiss-off goodbyes in “Walkin’ Away,” “Best Be On My Way,” “Whistlin’ Away.”

“Walkin’ Away” boasts this slinky rhythm straight out of a New Orleans side-alley second-line by Dobkin, who has worked with Bonnie Raitt and Richard Thompson. Then Goldberg adds a vocal colored with dark and interesting defiance in the face of obvious heartbreak. He’s not just carrying on. He’s running for the door.

“Whistlin’ Away” offers a devastating, unvarnished admission: “You broke me down,” Goldberg sings in the chorus, “and I know you know it.” But he quickly gathers himself. James and Watts return on the snappy “Best Be on My Way,” along with Jay Dee Maness on pedal steel, for a sing-along road song.

“She Carries” has the boozy mid-tempo vibe of the lost recordings of Bob Dylan and the Band, with Fraser again on the accordion and an arrangement by trombonist Mike Thompson. Maness (an ex-Byrds sideman on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo, then a founding member of Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band) also adds pedal steel to the countrified-blues “No Prison Bars.”

Even after making a suicidal choice, Goldberg finds room for humor. It’s gallows humor, but funny all the same. “Bounce” featuring a springy percussion overlay, soars toward a stick-to-your-ribs harmony by James and Watts. It’s only later that the broader implications of the song’s grim central question – “how high,” Goldberg asks, “did I bounce?” – become clear.

His buoyant disposition is perhaps best heard on “Bumps in the Road.”
“You’re still going to lose things that you can’t find,” Goldberg sings, over a coiled shuffle. “There’s still bad news in the best of times. When there are obstacles that you must face, getting down is a bad mistake.”

Goldberg’s bright optimism, even in the bleakest of moments, helps Off the Alleyway find the sunshine knifing through the dark clouds. This is a blues-inflected effort that never gets too blue.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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