Before she was a member of the Grateful Dead, vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux was a session musician in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, playing on sessions with the likes of Elvis Presley and Percy Sledge. Godchaux was prominently featured in the recent documentary on Muscle Shoals, and returned to her roots on her latest band recording, Back Around, which was recorded in Muscle Shoals’ Nutthouse Studios with her touring band (including ace DSO guitarist Jeff Mattson) augmented by a crew of the town’s best players, including the legendary Musche Shoals Horns. The result is an irresistible blend of San Francisco jam looseness and tight Alabama soul groove. The Godchaux-penned opening track, “Don’t Ask Me Why,” is a simmering minor key soul ballad with Godcahaux’s sultry vocal augmented by a lush chorus. The band’s punchy cover of Steve Cropper’s “Don’t Fight It” is given the full Swamper treatment with some muscular guitar from Jeff Mattson, tasty accents from the Muscle Shoals horns, and a powerful call-and-response vocal.
The Youngbloods classic “Darkness, Darkness” builds slowly from a muted keyboard and guitar introduction to a powerful instrumental interlude back into the final chorus. The group’s reinvention of “Crazy Fingers,” one of the Dead’s most challenging ballads, is sung powerfully by Godchaux and features creatively rippling horn and piano textures, a bit of banjo, and a brilliantly understated guitar passage from Mattson. “19th Nervous Breakdown is rendered as a sprightly shuffle sung as a duet by Mattson and Godchaux over an infectious “Mystery Train” guitar figure. The album closes with is the moody “Stranger Things,” which is built around a terse, stuttering drum and piano and expands into full blown choruses featuring the horn section, wrapping up with a jazzy flute coda from legendary horn/reed man Jim Horn. Back Around is a thoroughly entertaining effort that finds Godchaux and company successfully blurring and pushing stylistic borders.