The term troubadour is bandied about quite a bit these days, used to define anyone from a heartland hero to those on an endless quest. However in the case of Stephen Clair, the description couldn’t be any more fitting. Devoted to the pursuit of music since early childhood, he later left his hometown in upstate New York to follow his muse to the typical roosting spots -- Austin, San Francisco, New Orleans,New York City and even as far afield as the south of France. He honed his craft along the way, absorbing the trademark sounds of each place he adopted, creating a fertile mix of punk, rock, jazz, blues and soul in the process. Eventually he returned home, where he founded a musical boot camp and not only helped to groom the musicians but also gave them practical experience by recruiting him for his new album, one which trumpets the band in both name and execution.
Although it boasts only eight tracks in all, Stephen Clair and the Pushbacks offers enough diversity to satisfy several sets of songs. Clair’s staggering vocals are frequently compared to Ray Davies, but mostly it’s the shifting rhythms -- the swampy sound of “My Crime” which leads things off at a plodding pace, the drive and determination of “I Found You,” the woozy swagger of the aptly titled “Typing Tipsy” -- that make the initial impression. Clair’s elf-effacing attitude also comes to the fore, and when he succumbs to resignation in the loping “Kill Me,” it provides a sardonic send-off that concludes the album on an even edgier note.
Ultimately what emerges is an artist with a singular style and the confidence to conceive it. Consider this a case of Pushbacks with pull forward.
With a Ray Davies-like vocal delivery, mountains of songwriting credits, Clair's gritty and provocative songs are kicked into high gear with the muscular and stirring chops of the mighty Pushbacks.
"A fearless performer" —San Antonio Express
“Clair is laid-back - yet very New York, proving that's possible.”—Village Voice
“Stephen Clair and the Pushbacks have literary, story-telling songs like Chuck Prophet, with a range of feeling from Steve Forbert to Alejandro Escovedo.”—Nan Warshaw, Bloodshot Records
Stephen Clair and The Pushbacks opens with “My Crime,” a slow, lingering dare to the trope that albums need to kick in quickly—“We passed rye whiskey around in the van,” Clair intones, “it felt good to drive, but hell if I could stand. That’s the kind of love we make these days, driving these streets in a purple haze.” “Take It Downtown” snarls and laughs, with a spray of first verse rhymes over an insistent snare. And the soul-strutting “I Go Alone” is a balladeer’s paean to solitude, with baritone sax bolstering Clair’s best vocal ever.
Stephen Clair and The Pushbacks is a record for adults, made by adults.
Clair has spent his lifetime telling stories. With the Pushbacks, the Beacon N.Y. singer has found a band ready to tell those stories now, in today’s voice. Stephen Clair and The Pushbacks sparkles with rich, restrained guitar work. It has a deep pop sensibility, leavened with a writer’s eye for detail; and the horns, keys and harmonies add a keen thumbprint to Clair’s singular songs. The industry-savvy concert favorite “Kill Me,” for example, is not an order, or a request. It’s an admission; and the hook will stay in your ear for days.
In 2003, Clair—“a fearless performer” according to the San Antonio Express—became the darling of WFUV, with the relentless anthem “Jen in Her Underwear” becoming a summer hit, championed by the influential Rita Houston, and compared, vocally, to Lou Reed and James McMurtry. Clair, of course, had spent time in New York and Austin, so the blend made sense, but the song had a winking leer all its own.
In the mid-2000s, Clair made good on the Texas connection, and spent considerable time on tour with Robert Earl Keen. The star’s band took notice, backing Clair on the remarkable long-player What Luck, with producer/guitarist Rich Brotherton stating, “He's an incredible singer-songwriter.”
Live, the Pushbacks assay Clair’s considerable catalog with a focus on the new record, his sixth. It’s a unit both supple and strong, with most members also on the faculty at Clair’s award-winning school, Beacon Music Factory.
Stephen Clair and The Pushbacks is a carom from the days when radio could save your life and a song was all you needed.
Stephen Clair writes those songs.
“For fans of literate singer/songwriters who balance the weight of the world with a bit of humor, Clair ... should fit the bill.”—All Music Guide