Album Review: Mark Karan’s “Walk Through the Fire” (2009)

Scene: The Crossroads

“Hey buddy, I’ve got a deal for you. How would you like to make a living doing what you love – playing the guitar and making music? You’ll play to sold-out venues across the country. You’ll make a good living. You’ll explore the greatest tunes in the American songbook. I’ll make your dreams come true.”

“Sounds good, but what’s the catch? You’re going to want my eternal soul or something, right?”

“Nope, I’ve already got plenty of souls. But there is one small catch: you’re going to have to replace Jerry Garcia.”

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Exactly how do you replace a legend?

That’s the question Mark Karan has to grapple with each time he straps on his instrument as lead guitarist in Bob Weir’s Grateful Dead spin-off band RatDog. And while RatDog is definitely not the Grateful Dead, they play many Dead/Garcia songs and Mark Karan is tasked with playing the Jerry parts. By anyone’s standards, that’s a tough gig.

But over the last 11 years (starting with his stint in The Other Ones) Mark Karan has proven himself well up to the task of filling those tremendous shoes. His playing evokes Jerry’s tone without ever imitating it. He somehow lays down strong, confident leads while simultaneously deferring to Weir’s vision for the band’s sound. He’s the perfect sideman – selfless, professional, soulful and talented.

But the surprising thing about Mark is that he’s much more than just a sideman and a gifted guitar player. Listening to his band, Jemimah Puddleduck, shows a side of Mark that further illustrates what a beautiful, humble player he is. In Jemimah Puddleduck Mark is a band leader, an arranger, a songwriter and a vocalist. Listening to Puddleduck is a revelation – the realization that only half the picture was ever previously in focus.

Jemimah Puddleduck is probably best described as a pop-blues band that jams. So it’s no surprise that Mark’s debut solo album, Walk Through the Fire, has the same loose and fun feel. At first blush a listener might never guess that Mark is a member of the “family” (as the extended group of Dead-related and deadhead-approved musicians are affectionately referred) – but then Mark will drop an unexpected solo or groove and you’ll feel the ghost of Garcia hovering in the air. Mark is able to take a song to the next level with his playing. He achieves the ever-elusive lift-off.

Mark singing voice is strong and full throughout the album. While he doesn’t have the greatest range, he knows how to use what he’s got and his singing is rich and warm, giving the album a signature sound. His other voice – his guitar – is even better. Mark knows exactly where to put the notes for the maximum effect. He jams but he never noodles. His playing on this album might even surprise a few deadheads.

Walk Through the Fire is a mix of six Karan originals and six covers both well-known and obscure, with the disc clocking in at an impressive 68 minutes (or about three early Beatles LPs.) The risk of including so many covers is that it forces the listener to judge the originals within the context of the classic songs. It’s a statement that says “I believe that my compositions are as strong as these tunes.” To a lesser artist, this would force unfavorable comparisons. In Mark Karan’s case, it showcases his strengths as a songwriter and arranger.

Among the standout tracks (although the album is virtually filler-free) are three Karan originals: the soul-baring “Walk Through the Fire,” the epic slow blues tour-de-force of “Time Will Tell” and the delicious pop of “Love Song”. Among the covers, his treatment of Susan Sheller’s “Memphis Radio” is perfect; his arrangement of Randy Newman’s “Think It’s Gonna Rain” is amazing; and his take on the Pigpen classic “Easy Wind” shows the depth of his understanding of the music of the Grateful Dead.

Walk Through the Fire is a wonderful achievement for Mark and his band, including old friends drummer John Molo and keyboardist JT Thomas (Bruce Hornsby), singers Jackie LaBranch and Gloria Jones (JGB), bassist Hutch Hutchinson (Bonnie Raitt) and Delaney Bramlett’s last ever vocal performance (on RJ’s “Love in Vain”).

For those who love the blues, the Dead, or just beautiful, organic music from the heart and soul of a gifted man, I can’t recommend Walk Through the Fire highly enough. This is an album that’s going to be spun frequently for many years to come.

You can buy Walk Through the Fire at Mark’s website, or via the usual iTunes/amazon/local store route.

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Mark Karan’s “Walk Through the Fire” Song Ratings

(Ratings scale: 1 = poor; 2 = average; 3 = good; 4 = great)

1) Annie Don’t Lie: 3
2) Leave a Light On: 2
3) Bait the Hook: 3
4) Walk Through the Fire: 4
5) Love In Vain: 3
6) Rock Your Papa: 3
7) Memphis Radio: 4
8) Time Will Tell: 4
9) Love Song: 4
10) Think It’s Gonna Rain: 4
11) Fools In Love: 3
12) Easy Wind: 4

Final Score: 3.4

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