Henry McCullough, the ex-Wings and Joe Cocker sideman, explores what comes after superstardom on the new Unfinished Business a just-released album from Silverwolf Records. There are demons dealt with, memories rekindled, delicately rendered thoughts on life’s final chapter, and some sharp-elbowed pushbacks against growing old.
His has been a life dotted by dizzying highs and just as dramatic lows.
McCullough played on five Cocker records between 1969-75 (a stint that notably included an appearance at Woodstock), was a lead guitarist on the original 1970 recording of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar then on Spooky Tooth’s 1970 release The Last Puff — which opened with a cover of the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus.” A year later, he was invited to join Paul McCartney’s Wings project. He remained from 1972-73, a period that included the No. 2 hit “Live and Let Die,” Top 10 hit “Hi Hi Hi” and, most memorably, “My Love,” McCartney’s second post-Beatles charttopper. (Both McCartney and fellow former Wings member Denny Seiwell are thanked in the liner notes for Unfinished Business.) McCullough also released 1975’s Mind Your Own Business on George Harrison’s Dark Horse label. But then, like many of his peers, he fought pitched battles against drugs and alcohol. An accident with a knife in the early 1980s severed tendons in his playing hand, nearly ending McCullough’s career — and sidelining him for a lengthy amount of time, as well.
McCullough sorts through all of it on the diverse and involving Unfinished Business, a testament to longevity that deftly blends in rock, R&B, country and traditional Irish stylings. His voice, cracked with age, isn’t as strong as his guitar playing, but the songwriting is so vital — and the performance so committed — that this ends up being nothing more than a quibble.
“The Last of the Bluemen,” which opens the album, has the chattering backroad-blues rhythm of a lost J.J. Cale classic, then McCullough eases into a boot-scooting steel-pedal country lament for “I Couldn’t Sleep for Thinking of Hank Williams.” He looks into adulthood’s failings, and its deepest worries, on the Hilltoppers’ “I’d Rather Die Young,” Frankie Miller’s “Drunken Nights in the City” and his own haunting “Failed Christian” — which has already been covered by Nick Lowe. McCullough later makes a case for sticking around on the tough-minded “Tumble Dry,” a rumbling story-song featuring a series of rib-sticking riffs. A lasting passion for his emerald-hued homeland peeks out on “Belfast to Boston,” this touching reunion song that finds McCullough approximating Bob Dylan’s sharply incisive whine. He fleetly picks through an Irish-inflected turn on the mandolin during the instrumental “Josie’s in the Garden.”
There are other connective moments to his lengthy history around rock music, beginning with the jaunty take on Ronnie Lane’s “Kuschty Rye.” McCullough toured America with the Grease Band as an opening act for Lane and Rod Stewart’s band the Faces, and he’d also appeared on a Lane solo project. “Ould Piece of Wood” cries out for the loss of McCullough’s beloved 1963 Gibson, which went missing from a flight between Warsaw and Heathrow in 1999. He later covers Dylan’s rangy “Hollis Brown,” originally released in 1964 on The Times They Are A-Changin’. Then McCullough rambles his way through “Let the Four Winds Blow,” from Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew.
None of these covers, in the end, is as interesting as his thrilling update of “Big Barn Bed,” already one of the most propulsive deep cuts from Wings’ Red Rose Speedway. McCullough reformulates the 1973 album-opening tune as a scorching blues number, complete with swaying vocals and a torrid new riff. Nearly four decades after he improvised a solo that defined “My Love,” McCullough hasn’t lost a bit of penetrating wit on the guitar.