First of all, Steve Dawson produced Better the Devil You Know and is a member of the band. That’s reason enough to go out and grab the CD sight unseen, note unheard. Secondly, the disc is on the Black Hen label, so that’s just as strong a goad. But the Grand Prize is the main attraction: Canada’s storied Dave McLean, a cat who’s not released a hell of a lot of albums but has nonetheless been hailed by way-many sources far and wide, Billboard lauding the esteemed gent as having had the biggest effect in shaping “the Western Canada blues scene [more] than perhaps any other artist”, citing him as the ultimate insider. Better the Devil is only his sixth issuance since 1989, but, if you’re a fan of roots, back home, up in the hills, true as dirt-and-dust folk and blues, you’re going to wonder why he hasn’t 15 releases to his credit.
McLean plays guitar and harp, but the biggest draw is that voice of his, in which you can taste the salt of back-breaking work, feel the drip of country sweat, smell the sawdust, and wonder why your sinews are aching as though you’d just split rails for two weeks straight. There’s zero pretense here, just heart, art, and the embattled Everyman telling his story after evenin’ vittles and a dram or two of corn likker. His “As I go out swingin’, out on Heavens’ gate” line from the self-penned song of nearly the same name carries two meanings - fighting ‘til the end and carousing at the portal – a perfect evocation of the no-nonsense often subtle lyricism and old time religion, and heavy duty subtle criticism of it, drenched throughout his oeuvre.
Speaking of that self-same yesteryear Christering, Dave covers Jonathan Parker Millsap’s “Old Time Religion” with its pointedly anti-tent-revival sentimentation, citing that “Our fear of god kills everyone” before inserting the sado-maso Bible quote “If ya spare the rod, ya spoil the child” referring to a thumper father who “keeps the bodies in the shed”, a rather chilling portrait of the lunacies of organized religion. McLean, in the final stanza and more than once throughout this rare showcase, spares no dark grin of blistering smirkology in his delivery…so y’all knows I wuz luvvin’ the hearthside philosophizing going on here.
The backing vocals of Ann and Regina McCreary are wondrous, as good as Motown or Nashville has produced, pierced through the heart with the living blues, a presence the Staples Singers would’ve loved (Pops and Cleotha have passed, but Mavis is still performing at age 77, having appeared on the Stephen Colbert Show last year with a documentary and her latest CD). Other crack outfits are going to drool over the pair as well, just damn good ol’ singin’! Kevin McKendree, whom you’ll see mentioned again in a next-issue review of the Kentucky Headhunters’ latest, contributes mouthwatering keyboards as both contrast and complement to McLean’s toothsome harmonica work. Everyone in the band falls in behind it all, playing their keisters off, and thus we hope to Gawd it’s not going to take one more decade or so to see another release from this cat, but, while we wait, his parting admonition is Socratic (or at least Willy Nelsonian): “When in doubt, better the devil you know!” Too bad American voters didn’t heed it this year…but, uh, since we knew both devils, it wasn’t like the competition was any better, now was it?