With his first solo album in more than 15 years, the Orleans guitar great mines his muse
John Hall’s musical journey stretches back nearly 50 years, and yet his dedication to making music that’s meaningful and insightful has never faltered.
A founding member of the band Orleans and one of the main instigators of the No Nukes and MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) movements, he’s been intimately involved in promoting social change and environmental advocacy, both as a private citizen and as an elected representative in Congress.
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Nevertheless, it’s been awhile since Hall’s released a new album, so that makes his current offering, Reclaiming My Time (the title is a phrase used in Congress) an offering that’s over 15 years in coming. It’s an auspicious effort, given that it features an exceptional group of guest musicians — John Cowan, Andrea Zonn, Steve Wariner, Dar Williams and Dan Dugmore, among them. Part of the reason for Hall’s absence can be attributed to the four years Hall spent in Washington representing New York’s 19th congressional district, from 2007 to 2011. There were other circumstances that interfered as well.
“I was diagnosed with prostate cancer when I was still in Congress in September of 2010,” Hall explains. “I was in the middle of my reelection campaign. That’s the election that I lost, which I’m actually glad that I did. I’d probably be dead if I had been reelected, not only because I got cancer, but also because I got an aneurysm in my ascending aorta and having open heart surgery in December of 2011. So I wound up getting biotic, and then I was able to join the band again.”
Naturally, the band he’s referring to is Orleans, which he rejoined in 2012 after an earlier return to music in 2009. He had taken part in a benefit for the Clearwater Foundation in honor of Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday, and then two years later, he joined his MUSE colleagues Bonnie Raitt, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jackson Browne and others to raise money for the victims of the tsunami that devastated Fukushima, Japan.
Although Hall has resumed his solo career, his efforts with Orleans continue to occupy a great deal of his time. “It’s been me and (Orleans cofounder) Lance Hoppen and his brother Lane Hoppen on keyboards, Dennis Amero — a wonderful guitar player and singer who replaced me when I was not in the band and knew all various parts as well as all my parts — and Brady Spencer on drums.”
While Orleans is the outfit Hall’s best known for, in truth, his career started much earlier. HIs first band, Kangaroo, released its first and only album in 1967, followed by Hall’s own initial solo album, Action, three years later. (Both albums are rare collectors items.) Orleans took life two years later when singer and keyboard player Larry Hoppen and drummer Wells Kelly, former members of a band called Boffalongo (Best remembered as the band that first recorded the song “Dancing in the Moonlight,” later a hit group King Harvest) made the trek to Woodstock New York and joined forces with Hall to form the first incarnation of Orleans.
VIDEO: Orleans performs “Still The One” on Dutch TV 1976
Originally signed to ABC Records, and later Asylum Records, the group scored several hits — the aforementioned “Still the One” and “Dance with Me” along with “Love Takes Time.” A shift in record label affiliations and changes in the band’s line-up brought an end to their mainstream success (Hoppen and Kelly both passed away prematurely), but these days, the band remains active and continues to tour. Hall notes that in honor of the band’s upcoming 50th anniversary, a new Orleans album may finally be on the horizon.
In the meantime, Hall continued his solo career both on his own and at the helm of his John Hall Band. His song “Power” became an anthem of sorts for the budding anti-nuclear power movement. And while some of his later releases saw only limited release, the aptly titled Reclaiming My Time serves as a reminder not only of Hall’s songwriting prowess but also his instrumental abilities as well. He plays practically every instrument on the album.
He’s occupied in other areas as well, especially as far as writing songs for other artists alongside his regular cowriter John Paul Daniel. “I never thought I would be this busy being locked out, which I mostly was,” Hall marvels, referring to the extended period of inactivity caused by the pandemic. “But this recording, and all the new songs, have really occupied my time. So, yeah, it’s been a very productive year, and in some ways, more productive than if I’d been on the road. We had Orleans gigs booked throughout all 2020, but of course, they were canceled, like everybody else’s.”
Notably, the new album also features the first collaboration between Hall and his ex-wife Johanna — the pair responsible for the Orleans hits “Still the One” and “Dance with Me” — in more than 25 years.
“Hopefully, when you’re divorced long enough, you get over the problems you had and you get to be good friends,” Hall notes. Notably, the pair’s budding songwriting career was boosted when Janis Joplin recorded their song “Half Moon,” a scenario Hall remembers well.
“Johanna was interviewing Janis for The Village Voice,” Hall recalls. “That’s what Johanna did before we started writing songs together. Janis liked the positive review that Johanna gave for the I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama album, which came out right after she left Big Brother and the Holding company. So Janis asked if she could have an interview with Johanna, and they met at a restaurant on the west side of Manhattan. I was in in the parking and delivery area outside, probably playing guitar or something and reading and waiting for Johanna to come out after the interview. So then out comes Johanna with Janis behind her. It was just one of those fortuitous things you can’t plan. So we got together with her at our apartment and we were sitting around, singing blues versions of Christmas carols together. We were doing a shuffle version of ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’ I recall. It was unbelievable, and a bit scary because we didn’t have any alcohol in the house. So she drank the cooking sherry! I played her a couple songs I had written and she said she liked them, but she said they sounded like a young man should be singing them. So she turned to Johanna and said, ‘You’re a woman. You’re a writer. I want you to write me a song.’ And so we did.”
The new album is well-stocked with songs that seems to be tied to current themes, as evidenced by titles like “Lessons,” “Now More Than Ever,” “Save the Monarch,” World on Fire,” and “All Up and Down from Here.” Hall insists that there’s always some sort of subtext one can find in his work.
“Every song is a message, at least that’s the way I look at it anyway,” he suggests. “They’re all topical. When you’re singing ’dance with me,’ that’s a message. I had a friend of mine who went to Vietnam., and he had a really bad case of PTSD. That song was for him. I write about things that are important to me and about things that should be important to other people, maybethings that other people are also experiencing. I learned that by absorbing things from Dylan’s writing, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Brown’s writing. It’s payback, like when Joni said, they’re busy paving paradise and putting up a parking lot.
“One of the things that I’ve noticed, being on the road and driving back and forth from New York to Nashville, which I do a lot, is that every exit on the freeway looks the same. They all have the same chain stores and the same shopping centers, the same fast food, the same hotels. You can be anywhere in the country and it all looks the same. Jackson writes a lot of great songs — ‘The Shape of a Heart,’ ‘After the Deluge,’ and he’s also written songs about the wars in Central America and the death squads. He’s pretty brave about that kind of thing. So I’ve always been inspired by those kinds of writers.”