“ONE THING’S CLEAR, IT’S JUST GREAT TO BE ALIVE”
Steve Louw sings those words on “Don’t Wait,” a song that arrives not more than a few tunes into Headlight Dreams, the first album the singer/ songwriter has released in quite some time. Nearly thirteen years, to be precise. Louw entered a period of relative quiet after 2008’s Trancas Canyon and that extended hiatus is crucial to understanding why Headlight Dreams feels as rich and resonant as it does.
Listen closely to Headlight Dreams, it’s possible to hear how the songs don’t seem rushed or hurried. Each of the ten tunes is a sturdy artifact, built upon solid melodic bones and bearing words that evidence Louw’s maturity without touting it. There’s a sense of wisdom and grace that flows throughout the record, emotions that add depth to widescreen rockers that stir up memories of the kind of majestic big music that galvanized politically-conscious audiences in the 1980s and 1990s. Louw is part of that lineage but Headlight Dreams is an album that he couldn’t have made back when he was fronting either All Night Radio or Big Sky, nervy open-hearted outfits who helped make his reputation in his native South Africa. There are sprightly numbers here, to be sure, but Louw is comfortable with how his skin has weathered; he may bear a few scars but he wears them proudly.
Headlight Dreams is filled with the kind of polish and punch that derives from a lifetime of dedication to craft, but that doesn’t mean those scars aren’t present in his music. They’re evident in the words he sings on the searching “Seven Roses” or the surging anthem “Headlight Dreams,” which feels as wide, endless and desperate as a deserted stretch of highway. But they’re also apparent on happier moments such as “Crazy River,” a boundlessly romantic and hopeful song that functions as an optimistic keynote for this collection of songs: its sense of gratitude feels earned.
Gratitude is also an appropriate emotion for an album that exists at the fortunate intersection of spontaneity and craft. Louw’s sculpted compositions were captured swiftly, so they retain a sense of freshness. Much of this is due to Louw placing his trust in Kevin Shirley, a longtime friend, and collaborator who produced Headlight Dreams at Ocean Way in Nashville, Tennessee. Shirley assembled a crew of studio pros, including Grammy nominated keyboardist Kevin McKendree, guitarist Rob McNelley, bassist Alison Prestwood and drummer Greg Morrow to support Louw, surrounding his old pal with a sympathetic crew who would instinctively know how to flesh out his compositions. On one occasion, he invited a superstar colleague into the studio. Joe Bonamassa, America’s heir apparent to the blues-rock throne occupied by Eric Clapton, appears on “Wind In Your Hair,” elevating its buoyant and rough-hewn romance with his lovely, lyrical solo.
Bonamassa’s cameo crystalizes how the blend of new and familiar on Headlight Dreams winds up quite beguiling. The album sounds crisp and bright, a byproduct of its quick recording, but it’s impossible to ignore how the entire proceedings beat to a passionate heart. That soulfulness rises to the surface on the slower songs, such as the simmering “Get Out Of My Heart,” but it’s also palpable on the near-rockabilly bop of the frenetic “The Lost and Found” and “Heavy Weather,” an insistent and indignant protest song disguised as an infectious blues.
“Heavy Weather” provides a direct line to the earliest years of Steve Louw, when he was singing in favor of social justice, but no knowledge of his prior work is needed to have Headlight Dreams resonate deeply. Like all meaningful art, it exists entirely in the present, playing upon the past, shared experiences, and personal insight to create an experience that’s simultaneously personal and universal.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine