Grid City Fest

Mapache / The Bones of J.R. Jones
Sunday, July 17, 2022
Summer nights at The Commonwealth Room with an extended patio, featuring: live music, speciality drinks, charity games, and amazing local vendors.
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Roscoe is a road dog. The 14-year-old Boston Terrier has been there for the whole ride of Mapache, Clay Finch and Sam Blasucci’s band, which has grown from being the casual project of two longtime buds to one of the most formidable cosmic-folk acts around. “Roscoe’s been through a lot of shit,” says Blasucci, the dog’s formal owner. “He’s been all around the country, come on tour a little bit.” With some bemused pride, Finch points out that, for a few years, he and Blasucci bunked together in a room in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles that was just big enough to fit two twin beds. “It was the two of us and the dog,” he laughs.

Naturally, Roscoe has found himself the subject of a good handful of Mapache songs in the past—and on Roscoe’s Dream, the band’s third LP of originals, he takes center stage. (That’s him in quilt form on the album cover.) “I Love My Dog” opens up the album with a blissed-out stack of acoustic guitars and a lyrical explanation of one of Roscoe’s many talents: “I love my dog / Keepin’ the policeman out.”

Just as much an easygoing trip with Gram Parsons into the desert as a mad dash with the Grateful Dead away from the law, Roscoe’s Dream is the purest distillation yet of the distinct Mapache sound, which has been brewing for many years now. Finch and Blasucci first met as students at La Cañada High School, just north of Los Angeles: “There wasn’t much supervision or anything,” remembers Blasucci. “It was really nice. And we got to just play guitars together.”

The two stayed friends through their college years—Finch went to Chico State and Blasucci spent two years as a missionary in Mexico—and eventually they ended up back in L.A., spending their days playing guitar together once again, just like old times. Working with producer/engineer Dan Horne (Cass McCombs, Allah-Lahs), they recorded two albums of originals (2017’s Mapache and 2020’s From Liberty Street) as well an album of covers, 2021’s 3. Often trading solos, and occasionally switching from English to Spanish, Finch and Blasucci are now a well-oiled machine.

So when it came time to record Roscoe’s Dream, they didn’t mess with the formula. The band booked some time at Horne’s Lone Palm Studio and called in a handful of friends to play additional parts, including Farmer Dave Scher of Beachwood Sparks on melodica and lap steel on a couple tracks. The family affair has always been how the band likes to work, but this time they approached it on a grander scale than before, recording live as a full group in some cases, as opposed to working over Finch and Blasucci’s initial guitar/vocal parts. “It was a bit more of a band experience,” explains Finch.

The finished product is an ode to the past as well as a bridge forward. Covers of songs like Bo Diddley’s “Diana” and Gabby Pahinui’s “Kaua‘i Beauty” act as nods to heroes of theirs while originals like “Man and Woman” and “Pearl to the Swine” take the template of golden-age rock and lovingly deconstruct it in a modernist lens. “(They Don’t Know) At the Beach” was inspired by the idea of what trailblazing oldies DJ Art Laboe might like—but the gentle ripper of a song would fit right in at a backyard party in 2022.

Hard to imagine after years of being roommates, Finch and Blasucci are also bridging forward in new ways themselves. After the album was in the can, Finch decided to get a little closer to the water by moving to Malibu, and Blasucci moved about an hour north to Ojai with his girlfriend (and Roscoe, of course). But they’re not worried about the new distance slowing them down: “I think if anything it will be bringing more things to the table,” Blasucci considers. “We’re just expanding out in different directions.”

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The Bones of J.R. Jones

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Over the course of three full-length albums and two EPs, Jonathon Robert Linaberry — the songwriter, storyteller, visual artist, and one-man band behind The Bones of J.R. Jones — has woven his own tapestry of American roots music. It's a classic sound for the modern world, influenced not only by blues, soul, and forward-thinking folk, but also by J.R.'s environment.
From the bustle of New York City, where he launched The Bones of J.R. Jones with 2012's The Wildness, to the rustic solitude of his current home in the Catskills, J.R. has always looked to the world around him for inspiration. Few places have left him feeling as inspired as the American Southwest, an area whose desert panoramas and infinite horizons inspired the songs on his newest release, A Celebration. Written during trips to Tucson, Bisbee, Joshua Tree, and other desert destinations, the six-song EP is everything its title promises: a celebration of the thrill of getting lost in something new, whether it's a landscape, a sound, a perspective, or all of the above.

The most compelling artists among us don't replicate their past; instead, they evolve. A Celebration marks a new stage in The Bones of J.R. Jones' own evolution, fusing the songwriter's southern gothic sound — a sound rooted in acoustic instruments and J.R.'s woozy vocals — with drum machines, analog synths, vibraphone, and the rich, dark tones of a Magnatone amplifier. The songs were recorded quickly, in a series of first takes and instinctual performances, with J.R. playing nearly every instrument himself. The result is an organic record with an electric pulse — a collection of music that, like the region that inspired it, is familiar one minute and otherworldly the next.

"During our honeymoon, my wife and I disappeared into the desert and rented a house in the middle of an open, vast plain," J.R. remembers. "No one was around us for miles, which is a feeling that's hard to come by when you're from the northeast. The songwriting on A Celebration is rooted in the vulnerability that comes from being out there, being exposed to this infinite emptiness, especially as the night comes in and the colors change, or as you watch a thunderstorm blowing in from 20 miles away. That kind of insignificance allows for a sort of freedom, and I wanted to embrace it."

Slide guitar riffs and digital snare hits share the spotlight on the song's atmospheric opener, "Stay Wild." An ambient field recording of street life in an Arizona border town — captured by J.R. during his visit — fills "Keep it Low" with the moody sounds of barking dogs and singing locals. Harmonies are stacked three voices high on "Like an Old Lover," a sparse track that's equal parts old-time gospel ballad and new-world folksong. Tying everything together are vivid performances from J.R., who confidently blurs the boundaries between genre and generation. One minute, he's a pre-war troubadour on the corner of some dusty southwestern street, strumming songs on his Dean resonator. The next, he's a 21st century man with a drum machine, a Jupiter-8 synth, and a Kalamazoo guitar, creating a Nebraska-worthy collection of songs about the territories that moved him.

"The record's essence was shaped by those beautiful desert nights and the roads that go on endlessly," says J.R. "There's so much space out there. When making A Celebration, I wanted to keep things stripped-back in terms of orchestration, arrangement, and the number of players on the record. It gave me a chance to really embrace that space."

A Celebration's cover art — with its western color palette, desert iconography, and black-and-white photograph of wild animals — was handmade by J.R., who also created a series of accompanying prints. The goal, he says, is to embrace every aspect of the musical experience, creating an immersive world for his audience. In that sense, A Celebration does more than shine a light on the American southwest — it highlights J.R.'s ability to the bridge the gap between artistic disciplines.