San Francisco-based singer, songwriter, and musician Mick Hellman has launched a new project, in addition to his work with Wreckless Strangers, named Highway Wolf. The debut release Purdie’s Dream doesn’t call upon Hellman’s songwriting skills, per se, but it does depend heavily on his creative imagination. Leaning on his capacity for invention serves Hellman and his cadre of Bay Area musicians and family members well, however, despite not including a single original composition, the five songs on the EP Purdie’s Dream distinguish Hellman as one of the most gifted interpreters of material working today – in any genre.
The EP’s musical roots run deep into Americana, but there are other offshoots present as well. The Americana character of the collection, however, emerges from the outset. His sterling rebuild of Steve Winwood’s Eighties’ smash “Back in the High Life” as a warm and ultimately affirmative country-ish shuffle will linger with you. Hellman invests his vocal phrasing with equal parts musicality and deep emotional responsiveness to the lyrical content.
“In the City”, popularized by guitar giant Joe Walsh, is at quite a remove from its rock origins. Highway Wolf, instead, recasts the mid-tempo rock classic as a relaxed blues rife with sparkling piano lines and a spot-on drumming performance. The overall level of musicianship for the release, however, is uniformly high. Superb drumming is a hallmark of the five songs on this EP. It continues, along a different trajectory naturally, with Highway Wolf’s cover of Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son”.
Made famous by Stevens and later covered by Rod Stewart, the drumming contains worlds of subtleties and understated percussion that adds ballast to this otherwise near-ephemeral track. Dave Zirbel’s guitar work is one of the strong suits of this release and particularly shines here as well. “Blue Letter” is the EP’s penultimate cut, and the first of two Fleetwood Mac covers. Hellman culls this choice from the self-titled release that featured the recording debuts of songwriters and singers Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.
Highway Wolf cuts loose with this one. It’s easily the clearest out-and-out rock and roll moment on the EP and Hellman delivers a vocal performance full of vigor and bite. It pairs nicely, on contrast value alone, with the climatic “Silver Springs”, originally the B-side to Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” single, and here recut as a folk-like track with more than a passing nod to country music influences. Listeners, however, will hear the performance veering tantalizingly close to the rock sound of the original with its chorus.
Purdie’s Dream is an unusual and rewarding effort. It is typically the wont of artists covering “iconic” material such as this that they treat the songs like butterflies pinned under glass, resistant to change, but Mick Hellman doesn’t take on that point of view. Instead, the five tracks on Purdie’s Dream reclaim these songs as Hellman’s own without ever disrespecting the originals. It’s a powerful reminder of how effective these particular songs are but, even more so, short but monumental evidence of Hellman’s skills.