march 2009

These Healing Waters

By David McGee

Fontaine Brown
Manatee Records

Fontaine Brown (nee Douglas Fontaine Brown, born in Ann Arbor, MI) cut his first single in 1962, for the Chess subsidiary, Checker; in the ensuing 46 years-plus he's compiled an impressive resume that includes forming a band called Doug Brown & the Omens, one of whose members was the young Bob Seger (and another was drummer Bob Evans, who went on to experience the rarified air of pop stardom as the drummer for Smith, which had a #5 hit in 1969 with "Baby It's You"), that recorded for the Hideout label and for which Brown produced Seger's first solo sides. He was a member of the band Southwind, which was being courted by Apple Records but eventually signed to Blue Thumb after Apple collapsed. As a songwriter his tunes have been recorded by the likes of Joe Louis Walker, Emmylou Harris and Percy Sledge. In 1981 he cut a solo album as Fast Fontaine, but when it didn't click he settled down as a songwriter, which allowed him to pay the rent, to build a home studio and to put the life of the journeyman troubadour behind him after he had logged five years and too many miles to count playing "little crappy clubs," as he puts it, pursuing his musical dreams. With the encouragement of his stalwart friend and former Bug Music publishing chief Dan Bourgoise (with whom Brown had co-produced one of the psychedelic era's lost treasures, the 1968 album The Further Adventures of Charles Westover, by the titular artist, whose stage name was Del Shannon), Brown's giving it another shot on Tales From the Fence Line. If this album doesn't enhance his profile, well, let's not go there, because all the elements of a winner are firmly in place: Brown has come up with a dozen terrific songs, he's produced by Don Dixon (who sits on bass, 10-string bass and marimba), and his bandmates include guitarist Mitch Easter, keyboardist/mandolinist Peter Holsapple of the Smithereens, drummer Jim Brock and backing vocalist Kelley Ryan. Which might account for the Fence Line's bracing admixture of Motor City muscle and southern-fried soul and blues. Singing and playing ferocious guitar and heated harmonica moans and wails (and some piano), Brown is nothing less than formidable every time he steps into a song. But what makes the music so compelling is the incredible tightness of the entire band—these guys may never have played with each other before these sessions, but they demonstrate the synchronicity and seasoning one expects from musicians whose long-term communions allow them to anticipate each other's every move.

Bringin' it home: (from left) Mitch Easter, Peter Holsapple, Jim Brock, Fontaine Brown, Don Dixon at Dixon's Fidelitoreum studio, where Tales From the Fence Line was recorded
Photo: Dan Bourgoise

For hard-core blues fans, Brown delivers some swagger and a taste of melancholy both. The righteous stomp of "Fence Line" is the product of Brock's punishing drum shots, a wildly excoriating harmonica, Holsapple's hearty B3 ruminations, and Brown's gritty evocation of a man out on the edge of the world, "half froze and I don't know if I'm ever gonna make it back." Indicative of the smarts at work here, this prototypical blues workout features other sonic elements that lift it onto another level entirely, namely the funky mandolin lines Holsapple crafts throughout, and some weird percussion touches, artifacts, perhaps, of that Del Shannon psychedelic album Brown produced in '68. Okay, that last is a joke, but by God you're not going to hear another blues number quite like this one. For truly righteous attitudinizing, the gut-punch that is "Detroit Saturday" gets the job done, with Brown's processed vocal echoed and answered by other voices swirling around the mix, over an arrangement notable for its insistently shuffling percussive effects, wicked, unpredictable jabs of guitar and keyboard, a wailing harmonica and a dramatic stop-time ending that'll flat inject you out of your seat.

There's so many memorable moments here it's hard to single one out over another, but the depth of Brown's soul is most fully revealed on the beautiful southern R&B numbers following each other in the album sequence, "Closer To The Flame" and "Love Come Rescue Me." The former has that delicious Muscle Shoals feel in its gospel-tinged, Spooner Oldham-style organ hums and the sweet keyboard and guitar licks over a sturdy midtempo groove that Percy Sledge would eat up, as Brown evokes the self-conscious anxiety of a man falling way too deep in love "with every kiss," as the backing chorus repeats "just a little closer, just a little closer, just a little closer" behind his cautionary words. "Love Come Rescue Me" emerges from the opposite end of the experience—the deep, gospel-tinged groove and solemn organ wash frame a powerful, pleading Brown vocal, an open-hearted cry to be saved by love, lest he be "lost forever/will someone come through for me?" Dixon gives the song a big, soaring feel as it opens up and Brown digs down for some moving, heartfelt testifying of a profound, blue-eyed soul variety.

In 1968, Fontaine Brown (right) and Dan Bourgoise (center), executive producer of Brown's Tales From the Fence Line, produced Del Shannon's (left) psychedelic-era classic, The Further Tales of Charles Westover
Photo: Dan Bourgoise

Whereas these songs go to the southern church for their atmospherics, the sultry love ballad, "Lost In the Sensation," comes from a different longitude and latitude altogether, using the marimba and a swaying, tropical-like rhythm to fashion the sweltering ambiance for Brown's burning, yearning declarations of lusty longing. The immediate, devastating aftermath of a busted romance is the impetus for some straight-ahead, no-nonsense guitar-and-organ-driven rock 'n' roll in "Wreck At the Crossroads," a burner with an infectious chorus and relentless rhythmic attack, and a smidgen of blues—you can hear a younger Eric Clapton taking this one home. And if John Fogerty's in need of any material, he ought to choogle on over to the sludgy swamp-rock of "Just Out of Reach," a propulsive, funky tidbit with a robust guitar solo snaking through it and a rich, emotive vocal from Brown plaintively bemoaning his inability to find the right approach—or the right "music," as he cries—to lure the tantalizing girl of his dreams.

How appropriate, though, that a man who has spent most of his life in or around the music business, and a goodly number of those years knocking around America's lesser nightspots, would end his album with the driving assault titled "Endless Road," his guitar snarling and his harp honking feverishly, the lyrics evoking James Dean and the endless trail all at once. He knows what he's talking about, and it sounds like the highway call has really got a hold on him. Which is pretty good news for the rest of us who could stand being baptized in the healing waters found out there where folks gather near the fence line.

Buy it at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024