In his literary life he’s known by songwriters, poets and prose writers nationwide for being the director of multiple Michigan-based writers’ retreats, including the Detroit Michigan Writers’ Retreat, the Lost Lake Writers’ Retreat in northern Michigan, and his popular Lamb’s Retreat for Songwriters, now in its 24th year. And then there’s the life he leads as an award-winning singer, songwriter and recording artist who’s been performing for Michigan audiences for decades.
Lamb’s newest recording project, “A Movie Night,” is the perfect intersection of those two realms. The album features 15 original songs, many of which sprang from the very writing retreats he’s known for directing.
“A Movie Night” is the most recent release on Lamb’s own Mezzanotte label (named for his grandfather Giovanni Mezzanotte, or Johnny Midnight, who was himself an infamous character back in his Italian hometown). It’s no coincidence that “A Movie Night” bookends Lamb’s first Mezzanotte release from the 90s, “A Novel Day,” but Lamb is intentional about revealing his development as an artist and performer since that first album some 20 plus years ago.
As varied as the titles off a marquee, the themes of “A Movie Night” bravely wander the wide-open roads of the storytelling process. Whether it’s the tale of two young girls dealing with the consequences of their weekend revelry in “Normal by Monday,” or the teenage angst of the protagonist in “R Rated Night in Redford” who sneaks into an off-limits movie to explore the forbidden world of smoking, swearing and sex.
While Lamb’s unconventional and often whimsical songwriting provides the record’s framework, his acoustic rhythm guitar drives the feel behind each cut. But it’s the versatility and creativity of Lamb’s longtime friend, producer and guitar player, Jim Bizer, that really bring out the originality in Lamb’s songs. His surfy baritone guitar on “The Year of the Roses” is a fun complement to Len Wallace’s accordion, and gives the tune a cool south-of-the-border groove reminiscent of the Mavericks.
The guitar that Bizer plays is in itself a special guest; The black Stratocaster is an heirloom formerly played by Lamb’s late brother, Sal D’Agnillo, who passed away around the time of Lamb’s 2007 recording, “Feel That.” D’Agnillo, who was a popular and talented guitar player, is featured on “Feel That.” He left the guitar to Lamb.
“Jim made my brother’s guitar sound really good,” says Lamb. “I think my brother would be pleased with the way he played it.”
The record features multiple guests, including some trombone by bugs Beddow. Bizer’s slide guitar and banjo is particularly energized when he’s driving the toe-tapping, side-swaying rhythms behind “Bound to Talk,” which features punctuating background vocals by the distinctive voice of Tino Gross of the Howling Diablos. He also plays drums on the track.
On the ethereal meditation “Ringing of the Bell,” however, the spotlight shines fully and poignantly on Lamb. The song is a beautifully touching lament, perfectly balanced in production and performance.
Although there is a timeless quality to Lamb’s songwriting, there is a sense of nostalgia to “A Movie Night” in that it plays like an album from a time now past. The songs form cinematic vignettes that flow seamlessly from one to the next. There’s a picture in your mind for every song; nothing lays flat.
“I come from the album generation,” says Lamb. “If you sat down to listen to an album, you sat down to listen to the whole thing, side one, side two. I tried to make a record that people will listen to in that way. Something that will make them want to take the time to spin it all.”
John D. Lamb’s CD, Feel That is the winner of the 2007 Detroit Music Award for Outstanding Acoustic/Folk Recording. ” … Lamb nails the exhilaration of the Up North experience as the driver in one song heads for the ski slopes and the good times, while wary of the whitetails on the road….With a laid-back, made-in-Detroit drawl, his voice and lyrics invite comparisons to populist songwriters ranging from Mellencamp to Steve Earle, with roots buried in the heart of the country.” Northern Express Weekly, Traverse City. Review of A Novel Day “…writes songs as if he’s spent his whole life on the road … demonstrates Lamb’s finesse with simple, evocative and catchy songcrafting…Metro Times.