march 2011

D. Charles Speer: With voice and with pen, carrying the day. (Photo by John Ruscher, editor,

The Spirits Striving Within Him

By David McGee

D. Charles Speer & The Helix
Thrill Jockey Records

In the fabled No Neck Blues Band, David Charles Shuford is renowned for leading his mates through completely unstructured, unplanned sets that redefine the boundaries of where a nominal blues outfit can go—namely, anywhere, and the NNBB often winds up in exotic territory. But in his guise as D. Charles Speer, with his band The Helix, Shuford works in a more structured environment of roots styles that often cross paths within a single song. His heart, though, at least in this incarnation, belongs to country, and specifically to the traditionally based but lyrically unshackled country of, say, early Flying Burrito Brothers under the spell of Gram Parsons. Indeed, the Helix’s pedal steel wizard, Marc Orleans, wails, moans and cries throughout Leaving the Commonwealth as if possessed by the spirit of Sneaky Pete Kleinow. Then there’s Hans Chew on keyboards, adroitly adding atmosphere and energy in asides bluesy, jazzy and countrified and, at least when it comes to piano, crafting elegant, striking solos that hearken all the way back to the Texas Playboys’ great piano pounder, Al Stricklin and as far forward as Skynyrd’s late, great Billy Powell; and when things shift into a rock overdrive, as on the furious “Freddie’s Lapels,” Chewe moves over to organ and sends up a wall of rich chording that summon the spirit of a plethora of late ‘60s rock outfits beginning with Deep Purple.

D. Charles Speer & The Helix, ‘Mason Dixon Crime,’ December 12, 2008

Ultimately, Shuford/Speer carries the day, with his voice and his writing. He’s a bit of a chameleon vocally, adopting the voice necessary to put the tune across. On the ramshackle country of “Battle of the Wilderness,” a graphic Civil War epic that name-checks Gen. James Longstreet, Stonewall Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in surmising the toll, psychic and otherwise, of Grant and Lee’s first confrontation, across two counties of Virginia on May 5-7, 1864, Speer’s bedraggled vocalizing is out of the Kris Kristofferson stylebook, and his songwriting betrays a Kristoffersonian, if you will, sensitivity to the wound that time won’t heal so easily, as he wonders, after remarking about “those bodies burning out on Saunders Field,” what becomes of “these 1800 brothers whose coats were once well-heeled/but what of 200 million others whose fates have been concealed/and a 100,000 mothers whose bones are now congealed…” Not your typical Civil War song lyric, or even your typical Civil War song, and therein lies the rub: Leaving the Commonwealth is a challenging record to get a handle on because Shuford/Speer is simply not going to give the listener an easy ride. He wants you to pay attention, and probably doesn’t care much about his tales being neatly wrapped up at the end. His stories, no matter their timeframe, simply go on, from generation to generation, with the actions of one bequeathing consequences to another. In the dense thicket of music and emotion of “Days In the Kitchen,” amidst the mournful shower of cries emanating from Orleans’ pedal steel, Speer, sounding alternately like Dylan and brother Leon Russell, speaks of love’s liberating effect on his life, only to bear witness to it turning sour. At which point his writing takes a Victorian turn as if he’s suddenly channeling Christina Rosetti in lyrics such as “I vowed to protect you and cleave to your side/oh, that was the power of love’s serrated knife” and “my heart has been gouged by love’s serrated knife.” That is, until it takes another turn into the abstruse: “Well it’s a miserable feeling not likely to pass/I been dreamin’ of bridges and inhaling gas.” The widescreen ambitions of the title track, a multiple movement instrumental with twin guitars surging and protesting in an intense dialogue, as Chew’s piano underpins it with baroque, gospel-tinged piano support a la Billy Powell, seems an homage to Skynyrd at its best in the complexities of its multi-textured arrangement, and the sheer muscular thrust of its aggressive energy constantly coiling and uncoiling throughout the song’s fierce five-and-a-half minutes.

I’m leaving it with you, folks. I’m not sure what it all means, but I know Leaving the Commonwealth has a monster quality, with Shuford/Speer juggling multiple ideas at once in his narratives, reaching back in time and then into some hazy future in trying to say something about the way we live today. The John Reekie Civil War-era cover photo of African-Americans collecting the bones of soldiers killed in action in the battle of Cold Harbor, VA--depicting the grisly, shocking aftermath of General Grant's ill-fated charge against the Confederate Army--fits right in on an album where actions have profound, far reaching consequences. Proudly displaying his many and varied influences (did I mention the delightful Cajun country workout he indulges in on “Le Grand Cochon,” singing in French and English both?), our man uses those in the right way, to jump off into his own, near-surreal world with an original vision of how what came before informs what we’ve become now and what is likely to unfold when we’re all moldering in our graves. Like some modern-day version of the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge, he lives in the past, the present and the future, the spirits of all three striving within him. Figure it out for yourselves.

D. Charles Speer & The Helix’s Leaving the Commonwealth is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, 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