Buddha and the Blues is the album that New Orleans-based guitarist and singer-songwriter Anders Osborne and producer Chad Cromwell have wanted to make for many years. The album is a showcase for Osborne’s singer-songwriter side as opposed to his aggressive guitar playing that we heard when he was recording for Alligator. And, despite the title, it’s not really a blues album either. Several of these tunes were written in his backyard or while on vacation with his family, alone with his acoustic guitar. He brought these tunes to what he refers to as a “world-class ensemble’ featuring Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Bob Glaub (bass), Benmont Tench (keys), Windy Wagner-Cromwell (background vocals), and Chad Cromwell (guitar). On his producer role, Cromwell says, “I didn’t have to push. It was his idea to let me ‘drive the bus.’ So to speak. That allowed him to focus on songs and his performances. The freer he is to write, play, and sing; the better the record. He really trusted me.”
So, said another way, this is New Orleans meets southern California. Osborne wrote the songs with the southern Californian vibe in mind. The songs are played with a gentle breeze and tight precision. Having a location in mind helped Osborne write a body of tunes rather than individual songs. As Osborne kicks off the first track, “Alone” he says to the band “intimate and cool,” indicating how he wants to proceed. This tune was one that he describes as meditative prose written in his backyard. He strived to have the music match the poem – ‘a small word with an epic impression.’ In the acoustic “Fields of Honey,” another written in his backyard, he ruminates about staying sober. It’s a melodic song expressing gratitude for his blessings in life. The reference to honey is due to his wife keeping bees in their yard. The background vocals of Windy Wanger-Cromwell resonate on this one.
Slide guitar introduces the pulsating “Running,” another written at home. It’s a dialogue about the endless chasing of things that have no spiritual meaning to him. Goals that he’s been trained to believe are important, have him just running, going nowhere with no specific outcome in mind. It’s a universal feeling but his way of reminding himself that he’s always free. “Smoke and Mirrors, written while on vacation in St. Thomas, rocks the hardest of any track, especially with Wachtel’s scorching outro guitar solo. It’s a theme we’ve heard before – we create a belief system based on nothing but smoke and mirrors – “somewhere in translation, I lose myself again.”
Osborne returns to a smooth mellow groove for his ode to his wife “Aching for You Love.” It began as a plea for his wife to come home during a period when she was traveling but quickly turned into a cry for love as a state of mind. His “Come back home” pleas in the choruses ring true emotionally. “Escape’ has the swampiest groove and captures the tension prior to the California trip. The guitar interplay and propulsive percussion here is most resembles some of Osborne’s earlier work. The title track is semi-acoustic and is about the duality of our existence – we can choose either. , ”The One I Love” is another breezy grateful tune in the mode of “Fields of Honey.” “Traveling with Friends,” also written in St. Thomas, and a clear standout has these memorable lines – “Oh, it’s a miracle we still care. Oh, it’s so wonderful we’re still her. We’re still here.” As he reflects on the song, Osborne says, “I had a moment of relief from all of my searching and dissonance. I saw us all for what we are – beautiful, fragile, and in tumultuous space all together.” The album comes full circle with an unplugged version of “Alone.”
Osborne has written some terrific songs here, maybe the best collection of his storied career. It’s succinct, and precise with little embellishment, just as he intended.
Photo by Darren Manzari