Past The Light: Old Shoe's New Album Review

Article Contributed by Gabriel David Barkin | Published on Saturday, November 25, 2023

In the early 80s (I know, I’m dating myself), my East Coast friends raved about their local hippie band Max Creek. When I visited my crew in Connecticut in 1984, they took me to my first Creek show. The vibe was Grateful Dead-ish, but Max Creek had their own flavor. It was like trying on a new pair of prewashed jeans in a new color. They weren't the same old jeans, but they were my kind of jeans.

Later on, I had a similar experience with Colorado’s Little Women (Jerry Joseph’s first band). After hearing my CO hippie friends play a cassette a few times, I checked out Little Women at a club after that afternoon’s Grateful Dead show in Telluride in 1987. They were fun, both familiar and fresh. I picked up shades of Little Feat and hints of funk and reggae, but there was something new and different in the mix too.

My friends in Burlington used to brag about their hometown band too – and man, did those guys take off! I never saw Phish in a small club, but I’ve seen countless other local bands over the years that travel the same roads as the archetypal Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jam bands. The best of these up-and-comers drive eye-catching vehicles that leave colorful tread marks on well-worn paths. Some turn into the jamband behemoth-of-the-moment (Widespread, Spafford, Goose, fill in your favorites here). Some spend years trying to get noticed.

It's time for people to notice Chicago’s Old Shoe.

Old Shoe’s new album Past the Light is the quintet’s first release in six years. The Shoe drops (sorry, couldn’t resist!) their new record on December 8, 2023.
Old Shoe’s website says their music “lands in a space that is as comfortable as an old shoe.” That’s a good description. Their Americana roots draw heavily from the rich loam fertilized by The Dead and the Allman Brothers. Like many jam-tangent bands over the last four-plus decades, Old Shoe (Matt Robinson, guitar and vocals; Joe Day, keyboards, mandolin, and vocals; Jonathan Reed, drums and vocals; Jim Conry, guitar and vocals; and Janis Wallin, bass and vocals) wears its influences on the sleeve of a big, comfy sweater. But like the best of the lot, their “sweater” has attractive, original designs. It’s not an ugly sweater! It is, well, a comfortable shoe.

The new album was engineered, co-produced and mixed by Stephen Shirk, who has worked with many jam-adjacent music festival stalwarts including Alabama Shakes, The Lumineers, and Trampled by Turtles. The experience shows, and this may be Old Shoe’s strongest outing yet. Past the Light is a well-constructed collection with high production values that showcases the band’s songwriting chops and performance skills. Old Shoe's last release, 2017’s Country Home, veered toward the southern rock side of the jam band highway. With funky keyboards and envelope filters, Past the Light takes a different route, one that often hews closer to avenues inhabited by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. At the same time, about half of the tunes stand out with distinctive, well-honed craftsmanship that places Old Shoe in their own lane. The first category of cuts (the somewhat Dead-ish stuff) suggests that Old Shoe has the chops to put on a damn good live show for jam fans. The songs in the latter category, particularly the last two songs on Past the Light, earn them the right to crow about their unique creativity.

The opening track, “Adeline,” kicks it off with heavy organ layered beneath a catchy introductory guitar refrain. Singer Jim Conry’s lyrics are ironic and playful: “I was only half full when you filled my cup”; “I can’t give you back any of your lost time — and if I could, I would give you all of mine.” Later, Conry’s quick-and-dirty guitar solo hints at the live performance potential for this cut.

“Flowers on the Hill” is a sweet, melodic song that could spend time in the rotation of any AOR station. It’s a well-sung mid-tempo ballad with a radio-ready chorus. Like many of the album’s best songs, the guitar bit in the middle takes it up a notch with Jerry-like twang. And yeah, not everyone likes a long solo – but in this case, Conry’s solo is too short. Like the jam in “Adeline” and many of the other songs on Past the Light, “Flowers on the Hill” sounds like a template for an extended version Old Shoe might kick out on a club stage. More, please!

Things move into the world of social commentary for just a few minutes on “Monkey Business Weekend.” Joe Day’s critique slams billionaire investors who play fast and loose with the economy to make a buck. Is it directed at someone he knows, or a generic Fuck you, Fat Cats! indictment? Either way, it doesn’t bring down the playful energy of the album, and the chorus is bound to get hands and fingers waving on the dance floor:

Wave your hand in circles in the air – Like a billionaire
Finger to the sky and buy the share – Like a billionaire

“Ray” will remind any Deadhead of “Rubin and Cherise” when they hear the opening musical refrain. (That’s what I thought, and then my wife said the same thing.) This is perhaps the best example on Past the Light of paying homage to The Dead. When the keys come in for a short instrumental interlude, and even more so in the closing guitar solo, “Ray” morphs into a variation of “Terrapin Station.” Conry’s solo is tasty, perhaps more Dickey Betts than Jerry Garcia despite emulating the latter’s trademark wah-wah sound. "Ray" is likely to be a favorite for Deadhead fans looking for something close to home in Old Shoe's repertoire.

The next track, “Seen the Way,” starts with an “Elizabeth Reed” for a moment before driving into its own groove. At this point, it's clear this song is not cut from the same cloth as the stereotypical jam song. “Seen the Way” has chorus harmonies by Day, Robinson and Conry that has shades of Alice in Chains, a different spin that underscores Old Shoe’s ability to combine disparate elements of American rock music into a cohesive mix. Bass player Janis Wallin adds to the harmonies on a soulful bridge.

“Helium” is a light-hearted love song with an uplifting melody befitting its airy name. Majors and minors, step-ups and musical pauses keep this cut afloat. "Helium" is the most memorable, hummable tune on the record. The refrain is a bit trite – “I don’t wanna come down, wanna stay up here with you” – but the bridge is craftier:
The higher I go, the more the shadows grow
The closer to earth I get, the sooner I am to forget

The album closes strongly with “Astral Country Night.” Along with “Helium,” Old Shoe saved the best for last. “Astral Country Night” leads off by evoking imagery befitting its title; a pastoral, starlit intro that says there is “Not a care in sight.” Then Old Shoe jumps into a low-light funk groove that will get everyone out of bed to shake their nighttime bones. Joe Day’s classic organ crashes lead into a verse and Matt Robinson sings about “Moonlit silhouette gone dancing on
the beach, turning up the sand.” The band relies on a well-worn lyric to close the album: "It’s gonna be alright.” Maybe that’s not an original thought, but in the hands of creative, competent musicians and singers, is that really an issue? Like Elvis Costello said (when asked if he’d noticed that Olivia Rodrigo's song “Brutal” sounded like “Pump It Up”): “It's how rock and roll works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make it a brand-new toy.”

It's gonna be all right for Old Shoe. Check out their new toy.

Past The Light | Old Shoe