Steve Louw is a storyteller. From the slow train of 1990’s ‘Waiting On The Dawn’ that “takes us back to the dreams and hopes we had when we were young”, to the restless wanderer of 2008’s ‘The Wind Blows’, the singer-songwriter has created imagery as vivid as the music that accompanies it.
‘Headlight Dreams’, Louw’s first international solo release, is no different.
Inspired by such adventures as an 8000-km motorbike jaunt around Southern Africa, a canoe trip through the Grand Canyon, and a two-month Greyhound bus trek across the United States, its 10 tracks are the soundtrack to a 1974 National Geographic photo-essay on the US heartland. There are winding rivers, dusty roads, sweeping plains, muddy waters, railway tracks, one-horse towns, and rocky mountains, populated by renegades, broken gamblers, dreamers, loners, and an outlaw couple.
Theirs are stories of hope, despair, loss, and redemption, amplified not only by the beauty and desolation of their settings, but by how they’re conveyed. Louw’s voice and acoustic guitar are intentionally front and centre of the landscapes created by four A-grade Nashville session musicians and Kevin Shirley’s warm, earthy production.
So, no matter how uplifting the kwela-style guitars and jaunty keys of album opener ‘Crazy River’, they’re almost no match for the joy in Louw’s voice as he sings of campfires, full moons, and senoritas.
On the title track, Kev McHendry’s rich organ swells, Rob McNelley’s nimble guitar licks, and the swaggering groove of drummer Greg Morrow and bass player Alison Prestwood are the perfect backdrop to an impassioned vocal about lovers on the run.
Summer-in-a-song ‘Wind In Your Hair’ joins the pantheon of top-down, foot-down highway anthems with McHendry’s glistening keys, McNelley’s perfectly placed runs, sizzling Joe Bonamassa solo, and lines like “I look down the road/ I see you standing there/ With the sunlight on your face/ And the wind in your hair”.
No-nonsense honky-tonk rocker ‘The Lost And Found’ kicks up some real dirt as it gallops along to images of too much red wine, deals with the devil, and hearts left layin’ around town, while the steamin’ ‘Heavy Weather’ makes the inspired pairing of vintage blues and climate change.
But it’s seven-minute ‘Train Don’t Run’ that best sums up the combined genius of Louw and Shirley, friends since the 1980s. Lyrics that are both personal – the singer-songwriter’s grandfather was a railroad man – and global – the idea that railways symbolise humans’ misguided attempts to tame nature – are paired with slow-building music that can best be described as cinematic.
The producer, using his years of experience with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Crowes, Australian superstar Jimmy Barnes, Bonamassa, and especially the triple lead guitars of Iron Maiden, knows just how to create enough space to let each individual musician shine, while maintaining the right tension needed to hold together an epic masterpiece that, in turn, anchors Louw’s first album in seven years.