EP releases often play, for me, like Cliff’s Notes versions of the full-length album the artists could have recorded but didn’t. It isn’t the case, however, with Highway Wolf’s Purdie’s Dream. San Francisco’s Mick Hellman’s conception for this particular release doesn’t take him far from the Americana roots he frequently harvests with his other band Wreckless Strangers, but there’s an intimate touch here that’s far removed from Wreckless Strangers’ work.
Moreover, it’s a release of cover songs rather than original compositions. This may dampen some listeners’ enthusiasm for the release, but it shouldn’t. Hellman and his collaborators treat these well-regarded compositions, despite their reputations, as if he penned them rather than songwriters decades before him.
“Back in the High Life” is, arguably, the most famous of the EP’s tracks. Hellman feels an obvious deep affinity for the Steve Winwood classic and imbues its lyrics with bloodied but unbowed hope. He steeps the track in a well-calibrated Americana sound that favors classic country influences above all others and the musicianship, specifically guitarist Dave Zirbel, excels.
He takes a memorable stylistic turn with Joe Walsh’s “In the City”. Highway Wolf jettisons the rock guitar histrionics of Walsh’s version in favor of a loosey-goosey bluesy number with stellar piano supplied by pianist Barbara Higbie. The vocal strengths of this EP are stellar and Hellman’s re-arrangement of “In the City” benefits from several well-placed contributions from backing singers.
“Father and Son” follows it. Hellman looks to Cat Stevens’ discography for a source of inspiration here and does a marvelous job reorienting the tune in a folkier direction. Pop music was never far from the forefront of Stevens’ art during his peak years, but Highway Wolf finds grittier riches in their version without ever losing the melodic sweetness that exemplifies the original.
“Blue Letter” is a complete 180-degree turn in a different direction. This Fleetwood Mac original, from the early days of Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks’ original tenure with the band, never loses its rock heart in Hellman’s hands. Zirbel delivers perhaps his best guitar performance on Purdie’s Dream with this song and even a single listen to Hellman’s singing reveals how close he relates to the song’s lyrical material.
You can say the same about the cover of “Silver Springs” that closes the release. This aftermath-of-a-breakup song, par excellence, loses nothing with Hellman’s treatment. He doesn’t filter it through the same dynamic and dramatic rock arrangement that Fleetwood Max brought to their original (and later performances), but his quieter take on the cut holds its own unique power.
Highway Wolf’s Purdie’s Dream delivers in five songs what many albums of original material struggle to achieve in ten tracks. I can tell that picking these tracks, cooking up new arrangements for each, and giving these performances means a great deal to Mick Hellman and his creative partners. It should. He’s crafted a remarkably durable collection that should have widespread appeal; it certainly checked off all of the boxes for me. Let’s hope there’s more to come.
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