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With its eclectic mix of standards spanning genres and eras, Jerry Lee Lewis's "Mean Old Man" (Verve), much like his 2006 comeback, "Last Man Standing," is like a really good dive bar’s jukebox. Each track pairs the Killer with a big name admirer or two, many of them icons and idols in their own right, on a collection of well-chosen, well-executed rock, country, and gospel covers. It gives the album a sense of historical importance. The supporting performances (by Jagger, Richards, Clapton, Slash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard Mavis Staples, and others) are far from restrained, but no one tries to shadow Jerry Lee's shine. And though it's not a live album per se, it was recorded live in the studio (with many tracks captured in one take, "like we used to do"). Lee gave the musicians minimal musical direction or lead-time; he'd just take off, dragging them out of their comfort zones and eliciting some inspired performances in the process. Some of the raw heat and energy of live is preserved, and the result feels spontaneous.

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With its eclectic mix of standards spanning genres and eras, Jerry Lee Lewis's "Mean Old Man" (Verve), much like his 2006 comeback, "Last Man Standing," is like a really good dive bar’s jukebox. Each track pairs the Killer with a big name admirer or two, many of them icons and idols in their own right, on a collection of well-chosen, well-executed rock, country, and gospel covers. It gives the album a sense of historical importance. The supporting performances (by Jagger, Richards, Clapton, Slash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard Mavis Staples, and others) are far from restrained, but no one tries to shadow Jerry Lee's shine. And though it's not a live album per se, it was recorded live in the studio (with many tracks captured in one take, "like we used to do"). Lee gave the musicians minimal musical direction or lead-time; he'd just take off, dragging them out of their comfort zones and eliciting some inspired performances in the process. Some of the raw heat and energy of live is preserved, and the result feels spontaneous.

The title track (written for Lewis by Kris Kristofferson, with Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood on guitar) has the feel of classic outlaw country and is a candid shot of Lewis in his maturity—a wry but honest portrait of an older, wiser "wild man," who might be moving a little slower, might be more self-reflective and less impulsive, but who can still (and most definitely will) kick your ass for ya:  "If I look like a mean old man/that's what I am.../If I look like a voodoo doll, who takes his licking standing tall/who'd rather bite you back than crawl, that's what I am." The album cover (of the Deluxe Version cd—there are two versions) plays his legend to the hilt: Lewis, in snazzy black duds, descends from a vintage black limo into a small harem of young, attractive groupies, all vying for his attention—a humorous and unapologetic "owning" of his scandalous persona. On the inside photo, the chicks have joined him inside the limo (perhaps affirmation that the six-times married Lewis can "still do the job"). If he looks like a dirty old man, that's what he is.... 

On the Stones cover "Sweet Home Virginia," Jerry Lee is joined on guitar and back vocals by another mean old man, Keith Richards. The 75 year-old Lewis's voice, though intact and still classic, is thinner and less forceful than it was in his youth, and Richards' (never a singer's singer to begin with) 67-year-old voice, after decades of substance and cigarettes, is as wizened as his face. But their sort of torn and frayed voices sound just right for the song, which is even more countried up than the "Exile" version. (The beat here feels more squared off and plodding (though not in a bad way—just more like two-steppin') than the looser country blues shuffle of the original Stones version.) There's an undeniable authenticity to these particular men and these rather craggy voices singing lines like "Yes I've got the desert in my toenail/and I hid the speed inside my shoe." Sounds like truth. But in Jerry Lee's Sweet Virginia, true to his era and to his churchin' upbringing in Ferriday, Louisiana, the Stones lyrics have been cleaned up a bit: it's not "shit" but "shine" that you got to scrape right off your shoes. Mick Jagger provides back vox on another great old Stones' tune, "Dead Flowers," but on this one Jagger's forced-sounding nasal straining doesn’t merge well with Lewis's voice.

Another high point is a rowdy cover of rockabilly classic "You Can Have Her," featuring Eric Clapton and country guitar whiz James Burton. I don't even know who originally recorded this song—it's been covered by *everyone* (Elvis, Charlie Rich, Waylon Jennings, countless others), but this is one of the coolest versions I've heard. Lewis's and Clapton's voices both have a mellow quality, and they harmonize well together. Again, Jerry Lee sounds like he knows what he's talking about:  "Well you're stuck with the wrong woman/There ain't much that you can do/Just dig a hole and crawl right in/Pull the ground right over you." Clapton and Burton's guitar work on this tune is impeccable. No one shows off or plays over the song, because no one has anything to prove. Clapton is fired up, and does some country blues picking like he did on "Lay Down Sally."

While Lewis's voice has weakened a little, his piano playing absolutely has not, as is immediately evident on the turbo boogie of "Rockin My Life Away" (a duet with Kid Rock, who sounds pretty bad—maybe he's trying too hard, but I like his spirit). Slash's guitar sounds good, but Jerry Lee's piano is the monster in the room. My favorite song on the album, however, is the other boogie-woogie number, a ferocious cover of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" (with Ringo Starr, John Mayer and John Brion). This seems an obvious choice for Lewis (covered once before, but played hotter here), given that Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis are kindreds and peers (not to mention two of the last living first generation rock-n-rollers). And of course there's that Beethoven reference in the title, which sort of begs for flashy keys..... Lewis tears it up—it is nearly impossible to listen to this song without at least some of your body parts moving. And though it pains me greatly to say anything nice about John Mayer, he plays perfectly to this song—his tone is delicious, his phrasing seamless, and when Jerry Lee hollers, "Play that guitar, boy!" he's right on cue.  His solo rocks where it should rock, and swings where it should swing. 

Another standout cut, and the most beautiful song on the album, is the gospel classic "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," a duet with Mavis Staples. Robbie Robertson guests on guitar and Nils Lofgren gives good twang on lap steel.  Jerry Lee Lewis was raised on country gospel and sang in church choirs growing up, and Mavis Staples is one of the greatest gospel and soul singers of all time; together they achieve a particularly moving rendition of a classic piece of American folk music. This is a song that Jerry Lee could not have pulled off as a young man, but with his wisdom and his age, he has grown into the role. His performance is understated, solemn, not sensational or overly emotional, but drenched with sincerity. There's a quiet knowing of real pain in his intonation as he sings:  "I was standing by my window/On one cold and cloudy day/when I saw the hearse come rolling/For to carry my mother away." Mavis is sublime, as always, her voice warm, deep and powerful, yet honey soft around the edges. Although their styles are not similar, on this song, both singers are "soulful" in the their own way and they really complement each other. This song of mourning and faith is a strong reminder of the commonality between country music and blues.

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