Paul Pena

New Train (Hybrid ’00, recorded in '73) Rating: A-
This is one of those hard to believe but it’s true type of stories that makes the rock world (and the world in general) such an interesting place. Paul Pena originally released a self-titled debut album in 1971 that didn’t make much of an impact. For his follow up, the blind black man hooked up with future Steve Miller Band member Ben Sidran, who produced the album and later gave Miller “Jet Airliner,” which became a significant hit for him. Jerry Garcia also played on the album (on the very “Bertha”-like “Venutian Lady”), so I assume that Pena had some sort of reputation, yet for whatever reasons this second album was never released until almost 30 years later, which is even more incredible given the success that Miller had and how good this album is. Anyway, let’s forget about the injustices of why it took so long for this lost gem of an album to be unearthed (my friend suggests the very real possibility that marketing-wise it was because he wasn't black enough for black radio and he wasn't white enough for white (rock) radio) and instead focus on the stellar music, shall we? “Gonna Move” gets the album off to a strong start with an easy going shuffle groove, a chorus (“I’m gonna move, if you care, you can find me if you wanna go there”) that’s awkward on paper but eminently catchy in reality, and even a guitar solo (this guy’s got chops, believe me). Highlights both, the title track and “Let’s Move and Groove Together” are soulful ballads with gospel overtones (via female backing vocals) whose tasteful strings add a sense of grandeur, while Pena’s own version of “Jet Airliner” is grittier, slower paced, and has more guitar than Miller’s far better known but frankly inferior version. Elsewhere, the up-tempo “Wait On What You Want” and the more measured “A Bit Of Alright” are both funky but in differing low-key ways, while “Cosmic Mirror” is notable for its dead-on Hendrix impersonation; unsurprisingly, his guitar work really steps to the fore on this track. “Indian Boy” and “Taking Your Love Down” are other smooth, laid-back ballads, the former being strings-heavy, the latter ending the album with a sparse acoustic showcase (with female voices again providing classy accompaniment), but both containing some tasty pedal steel guitar. Words like tasty, laid back, and soulful describe this album in general, and though perhaps not every song here is a bulls-eye and Pena is more an inspired craftsman than an inspired genius (he’s more like Miller than Hendrix, in other words), it's simply mystifying that such a high quality album almost never saw the light of day. Well, better late than never I guess - enjoy.

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