John Kilzer performs his song “Kentucky Water” from the album “Seven” at the Sid Selvidge Tribute Concert at the Levitt Shell in Memphis, joined by Susan Marshall, Reba Russell, Scott Thompson and Jim Spake, 6/25/13
How many people can say they’ve been a star basketball player, a college professor and poet, a songwriter, a rock-and-roll star and then a pastor? That unlikely odyssey is reality for John Kilzer, one of Memphis’ best-beloved basketball stars in his youth who went on to become one of Memphis’ best-beloved music figures. He was also a close friend of Sid Selvidge’s which is why his appearance at the Levitt Shell Tuesday night was so appropriate. Kilzer for the most part stuck to songs from his 2011 masterpiece album Seven, opening with his ballad “The Stranger”, but the high point (at least for me) was his climactic performance of the album opener “Kentucky Water” featuring guest appearances from vocalist Susan Marshall and Reba Russell as well as trumpeter Scott Thompson and saxman Jim Spake. That tune, with its soulful, funky feel and dadaist lyrics sounds like what might have been the result had Bob Dylan decided to record at Royal Studios with Hi Rhythm.
John Kilzer should be a familiar name to most Memphians, although many will likely remember him for different reasons. At various times he has been a Memphis State University basketball player, a university professor, a singer-songwriter with a major label deal, a recovering alcoholic, a theological student and now a clergyman. With the release of Seven on the Memphis-based Madjack Records, Kilzer returns to his roots as a songwriter and lover of literature, along with evidence of his new-found faith, for as the name suggests, Seven is an extended meditation on God, brokenness and grace.
The album begins joyfully enough, with the nonsensical soul-funk of “Kentucky Water”, a Memphis romp reminiscent of The Hombres old “Let It All Hang Out”, bolstered by Teenie Hodges on guitar (who taught Kilzer how the play the guitar), Charles Hodges on organ, and a first-rate horn section. Kilzer tells an unnamed someone to “Pass me the rattlesnake, honey, I’m feeling faithful.” All good fun. But the bulk of the album moves on to weightier matters, with the song “Mary” setting the solemn theme of spirituality, and “Two Coats” explicitly referencing Kilzer’s own conversion. “Two coats were before me, the old and the new,” he sings. “I asked my sweet Savior what should I do?” A similar mood hangs over “The Stranger”, Kilzer’s brilliant retelling of the story of the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda. Referring to being “beside the pool of the broken”, he mentions a Stranger that comes and says “Everyone alive today is broken, Anyone who says they’re not’s a fool.” There are even notes of doubt, such as the song “Resurrection Train”, where Kilzer sings “If the dead can rise why can’t they see me down here on my knees.” But the darker and more solemn moments are broken up by joyful soul in “Walk By Faith, Not By Sight” or the upbeat “All For Joy.” Even the somber, wistful “Fading Man” has the mood and feel of a New Orleans ballad. Altogether, John Kilzer’s Seven is a masterful accomplishment, full of the various strands of musical tradition that make up Memphis, backed by incredible musicianship, great arranging, superb songwriting and good recording values. An essential addition to the Memphis musical legacy.