"A fresh new talent in the contemporary acoustic , Americana, and folk music genres...you'll hear subtle influences in Richard's singing and songwriting including dashes of Randy Newman, David Bromberg, and various members of the Band."
In praise of Richard Neal’s A Step Up (2016)
New Haven, CT
February 29, 2016
One of the best things about Richard Neal is that he cares about us. He is not about spilling his guts. He’s about giving something to his listeners. A well-read, clever fellow, in person he can dazzle you with his knowledge on multifarious subjects or have you in stitches with irreverent asides. A dead serious writer/arranger/producer/engineer/editor and battler of demons, he is also a lighthearted, fun, dazzlingly gifted player, performer and raconteur. All of these qualities and more are in evidence in his newest collection of songs, A Step Up. It runs the gamut from the dark and deep to the light and playful, like its author.
The magisterial “Blue Town,” beauteous “Before the Last Acorn Drops,” and brilliant “Obsession” anchor a collection of lively crowd favorites from Richard’s popular live shows. A born storyteller, Richard invites us to go with him to seek a girl like “Tammy Wynette” or visit “The County Fair.” On his “quest for beauty on the trail of truth,” we find ourselves on the treacherous outskirts of locales where “reason is overthrown by barbarian hordes” or folks are down to “Skin and Bone” in a polarized America.
They say write about what you know. I suspect Richard has been to “Blue Town” and experienced the pain of loss and the throes of “Obsession,” as which of us has not? He has definitely been “Love Struck.” Like, daily. But has he ridden “The Jubilation Train” or “Cleopatra’s Barge?” I think he has: in his mind, Richard inhabits the places he writes and sings of with remarkable verisimilitude—which is why we are transported to them when we listen and sing along.
I’m gonna cut to the chase: “Blue Town” is a small masterpiece. Deceptively simple, it arrives as if fully formed from the ether, and it is destined to become a classic. The song has already been covered beautifully by Anne Marie Menta, another gifted Connecticut singer-songwriter, on her must-have collection Seven Secrets (2009), but in this authorial version, Richard’s haunting guitar work and singing induce goosebumps.
Fans of Richard’s 2003 bluegrass record Hoe or his masterful 2007 Beacon are already in the know about his impressive dynamic range, ingenious lyric writing, and highly skilled, nuanced playing. A Step Up builds upon his previous recordings and live shows with the estimable mentorship of Rex Fowler, of Aztec Two-Step and Nutopians fame, who also provides ethereal harmonies—perhaps most notably on “Blue Town.” I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Rex and the Nutopians perform in honor of John Lennon’s birthday in October 2013. The ensemble also featured the gifted Jordan Jancz, who similarly graces A Step Up. On Richard’s new record, check out Jordan’s splendiferous work on bass and cello; Hoe alumnus Bob Csugie’s as-ever strong and inventive bass playing on two numbers; tasty fiddle contributions from Tahlia Furman Cott; and memorable vocal additions from Patricia Kiel, Ronnell Malyszka, Porter Carroll, Jr., and Margaret Samalot Fiellin. I would like in particular to give a shout out to Richard for his superb dobro licks on “Obsession” and “Skin and Bone” and inspired dobro and mando parts on “Jubilation Train.” Co-produced by Rex Fowler with Richard Neal and former Hoe bandmate and mandolin wizard Stephen K. Miller, and mastered by so-excellent Vic Steffens of Horizon Music Group.A Step Up delivers the goods. Get you some.