By Bliss Bowen

Veteran Covina songwriter Rick Shea’s song “(Down at the Bar at) Gypsy Sally’s” evokes late club nights from the pre-COVID-19 past. “Just be cool, you’ll be alright,” he assures us as we enter. “You can pick your pills or pick your poison/But you sure don’t pick a fight.” Easy enough to imagine Shea nodding from a corner stage toward the formidable owner of the joint (“She’s got a shotgun in the corner/ She keeps a shiv behind the bar”).

Gypsy Sally’s peopled by volatile characters—Stagger Lee, Little Walter, Lightnin’, Thelma—plucked from the blues canon, benfiting the smoky grooves set out by drummer Shawn Nourse and bassist Jeff Turmes and the taut atmosphere sketched by Phil Parlapiano’s accordion. Just after Shea’s tension-slicing guitar solo he warns, “The Wolfman’s on the prowl/ …You might hear him start to howl,” then steps back for an explosive coda from Turmes, whose saxophone speaks that language too elusive to be constrained by words.

It’s the creative camaraderie between players that evokes Shea & Co. performing on Southland stages. They’ve performed together in numerous configurations, and their intuitive feel for where and how they will place notes flavors that song and the album from which it comes, “Love & Desperation,” being released October 23 by Tres Pescadores. In addition to Nourse and longtime bassist Dave Hall, Shea is joined by guests such as keyboardist Skip Edwards, trumpeter Probyn Gregory, accordionist David Jackson, singer Dan Navarro, and fiddler Jim Shirey.

“I could tell all the parts were good as they came in,” Shea said, describing the process of “building” tracks recorded and emailed from individual home studios. “These guys were so great. It really does sound like a bunch of guys playing together.”

The album connects with essential touchstones: love, community, nature, music. Country-blues tunes have long been a staple of Shea’s repertoire, but there’s a more pronounced blues element than has been heard on his previous recordings.

“I think that’s because of everything that’s going on,” Shea acknowledged with a laugh. He said he was “affected more than inspired” by current events, but 2020’s troubles inevitably echo behind tracks such as the smoldering “Blues at Midnight” and a rollicking cover of Al Ferrier’s “Blues Stop Knockin’ at My Door.” Gilded with Shea’s pedal steel and co-written with Kim Ringer, daughter of late California folk songwriter Jim Ringer, “She Sang of the Earth” celebrates the Golden State’s natural and musical heritage. Like “Gypsy Sally’s” (a name borrowed from Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley”), it seems to speak of a far-away world that’s never heard of Covid-19.

“That’s kind of where it came from—thinking about all of these places,” said Shea, who first developed his musical chops playing bars and truck stops around San Bernardino before graduating to LA honky-tonks and sideman gigs for Dave Alvin and others. “It’s a fantasy. All of those people for the most part are gone. But some nights, I would look out and imagine if maybe all of those (characters) were there. Even if they’re not, a lot of times there would be people that to me were like them.” 

Rick Shea celebrates the release of “Love & Desperation” at his weekly concert 5 p.m. Saturday, October 24,

livestreamed on Facebook Live.

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