You worry when legacy rockers return after long layoffs. You wonder if they are going to sound too on the nose, like imitations of their previous selves. You worry that they won’t sound enough like their old selves too, that they’ll come off like someone trying too hard.
Mitch Ryder — heralded frontman of the Detroit Wheels, and hitmaker behind “Devil With a Blue Dress On,” “CC Rider” and “Jenny Take a Ride” — balances all of these many concerns with a virile, don’t-give-a-shit aplomb on The Promise, his first U.S. release in three decades.
Credit goes in part to his crack, in-the-pocket band — including drummer James Gadson, guitarist Randy Jacobs and guest keyboardist Patrick Leonard (Madonna, Elton John, Roger Waters). Then there’s producer Don Was, who seems to understand Ryder in a way that John Mellencamp, who produced Ryder’s most recent stateside project Never Kick a Sleeping Dog in 1983, never could.
This 12-song set, released last year in Europe as Detroit Ain’t Dead Yet and appearing stateside today, tips its hat to the Mellencampy mainstream — sounding rootsy, raw and direct — but does a better job of incorporating the brawny soul that always made Ryder’s sound special. Was, a fellow Motor City native, shares a similarly complex sensibility.
Finally, there’s Ryder himself, who has emerged from years of battling record labels and management, drugs and the crushing anonymity that followed his rocket-ride to the charts a half century ago. He’s a little rougher around the edges, but no less tough, and that’s only added a neon-lit intrigue to his Little Richard-inspired shouts. And, though we haven’t heard from him lately, he’s kept his instrument tuned up through a series of interesting, if uneven German-released albums. The result is a song cycle that moves briskly between deep-fried soul successes like “My Heart Belongs To Me” (a track that recalls Ryder’s unjustly overlooked Detroit/Memphis Experiment, recorded in 1969 with Booker T and the MGs) to the funky and startlingly frank “Junkie Love” over to the primal rumble of his tough-minded “The Way We Were.”
You want Mitch Ryder to make a bold return to that canny melding of blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll, and he does. You want Ryder to thrill all over again with that gravel-gargle howl, and he does. You want him to live up to the promise of those old mid-1960s sides, and to build upon them. And he does.
The Promise sounds like a Mitch Ryder album ought to sound — in the very best sense of the words.