Dylan LeBlanc – Pastimes: EP Review

Eclectic collection of tunes that inspired the acclaimed alt-country practitioner Dylan LeBlanc.

Release Date:  18th June 2021

Label: ATO Records

Formats: Digital (Vinyl release planned for later in 2021)

Muscle Shoals based alt-country singer/songwriter Dylan LeBlanc has seen and experienced an awful lot during his 31 years.  Hailing from Shreveport, Louisiana, the son of a country music songwriter and performer, LeBlanc spent an unsettled childhood, shuffling between his Shreveport-based mother and his father who was working the clubs and bars in and around Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  LeBlanc himself started performing at the age of 15 and, in 2009, at the age of 19, he was signed up by Rough Trade Records, who released his debut album, Pauper in 2010. 

He has now released four solo albums, the latest of which, 2019’s Renegade, attracted widespread accolades and earned LeBlanc the (possibly dubious) epithet of The New Neil Young.  Over the past decade, LeBlanc has nurtured quite a reputation – he’s collaborated with the likes of Emmylou Harris and Brittany Howard and has shared stages with Bruce Springsteen and Lucinda Williams.

After such a frantic record of recent achievement, LeBlanc has decided that now is the time to pause for a moment and pay tribute to some of the artists that have inspired his musical choices and direction over the years and Pastimes, LeBlanc’s new EP, is the outcome of that decision. 

He’s certainly made some eclectic selections!  To anyone familiar with LeBlanc’s music, it won’t come as any surprise whatsoever to learn that his chosen influences include JJ Cale, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Buffalo Springfield.  The selection of Glen Campbell may cause a few eyebrows to rise, but, as it happens, his choice of Campbell’s Gentle On My Mind is inspired, and is included in the collection for sound family reasons.  I have to say that I find his selections intriguing and gratifying. He’s steered well away from the obvious choices with each of his chosen artists, and always for well-justified reasons.

A good case in point is the EP’s opening track, a version of The Stones’ Play With Fire, an almost forgotten track from their 1965 album, Out of Our Heads. LeBlanc says that this is a song that taught him to appreciate how music can be used as medium for storytelling, and his interpretation of this cautionary tale of the precipitous nature of cossetted luxury shows that he learned that lesson very well.  The deep, rich production, laced with smouldering guitars and lush strings conveys a genuinely sinister aspect that revitalizes the song.

Le Blanc’s take on Buffalo Springfield’s Expecting To Fly is, by contrast, far truer to the well-known original.  Chosen because it reminds LeBlanc of his teenage years of country car rides to the accompaniment of loud sounds from the car radio, it’s a respectful cover version – a little smoother around the edges than the Buffalo Springfield original, perhaps, and highly enjoyable.

JJ Cale’s Sensitive Kind is a song that takes LeBlanc back to the days when he would accompany his father to gigs in smoky dive bars.  The version here retains the broody threat of the original, which is then embellished by some excellent Robert Cray-sounding guitar and some beautifully lush strings.

With regard to the cover of Glen Campbell’s Gentle On My Mind, LeBlanc has this to say:  “…[My father] loved this song and it was heavily played around the house and passed and sang at gatherings and parties where everyone was drinking and laughing and feeling no pain, as they say.  I love the story of this song about a drifter roaming from place to place, untethered to anyone or anything, therefore making the moment of missing his muse more pure.  I can relate [to that] as I have always wanted to roam from place to place and be free.  I love this song so much and it holds a nostalgic and wonderful place in my heart.”  That’s a sentiment that will resonate with many, I expect…  Gentle on My Mind is a song that features in a lot of people’s ‘guilty Pleasures’ listings, and it’s really refreshing to see the song included here.  LeBlanc’s version is typically alt-country, with a shuffling drumbeat, simple yet subtle bass, gently strummed acoustic guitars, and some delightful pedal steel thrown in for good measure.

For me, the best of this short collection of well-chosen covers is LeBlanc’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell.  The acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment reflects the sparsity of Dylan’s own 1983 recording of the song; LeBlanc delivers the vocals with genuine anguish and passion and the acoustic guitar playing in the extended instrumental sections is marvelous.

When LeBlanc was playing his earliest gigs, back in 2005, aged 15, he loved to try to impress potential female admirers by performing his version of Led Zeppelin’s Going To California.  With his final selection for the Pastimes EP, he has chosen to reprise those days, with a pretty faithful reproduction of the Led Zeppelin IV track.  The acoustic guitars have managed to reproduce that hard-edged Led Zeppelin sound and LeBlanc does a passable impression of Robert Plant’s vocal, albeit (and thankfully) without attempting to copy RP’s full-bore shrieks…

Pastimes is a lot of fun.  The choice of material is inspired and the songs are interpreted with originality and respect.  Dylan LeBlanc has a highly distinctive voice which won’t appeal to everyone, but for the songs he’s chosen for this collection, it’s just right – a brilliant bar band, brought right into your living room!

Watch the Official video to Gentle on My Mind – a track from the EP – here:

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