You never forget the first time you hear certain rock-and-roll voices – Robert Plant, Janis Joplin, Axl Rose – the way the human instrument viscerally connects your body and heart, calling your emotions to the surface and transforming them into something universal, transcendent, and ultimately, cathartic. Such was the case when I first heard Billy Webster, some two decades ago. A friend had a friend who was in a band, and I had to hear him sing, blah blah blah. But when she dropped that cassette and his angelic strains muscled forth, I froze, utterly stilled. How was it possible he hit such otherworldly heights, rounding them out with such guttural and animal orotundity? Often with the great voices it’s a matter of range, a technical instrument with vast and supple reach, but there is always that extra, ineffable element of emotional immediacy, the alchemic ability to transfer sweetness and soulfulness and animal rage mainline to your core. It’s what you want out of rock, and you can never get enough.
Over the ensuing years, as a fan and then as a friend, I’ve seen Billy Webster perform a dozen times, and enthusiastically followed every one of his albums through his many iterations, in bands and as a solo artist. As a performer, he possesses the effortless charisma and risk-taking showmanship of the greats. As a musician, he brings to his God-given instrument an almost effortless pop sensibility, like David Bowie or Tom Petty, the ability to pen deceptively simple songs that convey great substance. He is literate, and possesses that rare and elusive ability to straddle matters both secular and spiritual in the way that the Irish band U2 have; indeed, he renders such robust and integrated concerns natural, as they should be. For Billy, the personal is spiritual, and that implicit creed infuses his music, which careens like his voice from the earthly to the celestial and everything in between in a single instant. Billy sings the whole of being, the entirety of loving, and the illuminating joy of music, especially rock and roll.
Webster’s new album, The One Thing You Need, revisits six beloved classics, well-known to his followers, often with a harder, driving sound, mixed in with eight bright new offerings. It’s a wonderful and various collection, purposefully genre-bending, effortlessly mixing rock, rockabilly, hard rock, and surprising punk, showcasing not only Webster’s versatility, but also a generous and infectious love for the full range of his medium. He and long-time collaborator Carl Basler, on lead guitar, take us on a headlong sonic pilgrimage through the stations of human love that leaves us breathless, hurting, and ultimately, affirmed.
Billy Webster’s wide-ranging influences resonate through his work with celebratory deference. Rock and roll is a cathedral built by sacrificial geniuses stone upon stone, reaching from the body through the heart and into the freeing heavens. And yet these sounds are lovingly integrated in Webster into a unique, signature voice, an instantly legendary presence, one who places his own perfect stone with stunning virtuosity, playful gravitas, and loving defiance into the towering keep of this sacred upreach. Billy is a restless angel indeed, plying the God-given gift of his holy voice in the earthly realm of the “hear” and now, giving himself over with the gravity of grace wholeheartedly to love and music, and boldly calling creation likewise to account. The One Thing You Need is a human cry for heaven on earth, right here right now, and is that one thing indeed.