Robert Rex Waller Jr. “See The Big Man Cry” (2023) CD Review

Robert Waller has one of the best voices in music, and his is the voice that leads I See Hawks In L.A., one of the best bands currently out there. He’s also an excellent songwriter, though when he released his 2016 solo album, Fancy Free, he chose to apply his significant vocal talent to the work of other artists he admires, covering songs by Utah Phillips, Neil Young and Willie Nelson. And on his new solo album, See The Big Man Cry, he again turns to the work of other artists, this time with a few delightfully surprising choices. The album was produced by Carla Olson (of The Textones), who plays guitar and provides some harmony vocals on certain tracks. Rob Waller had sung on two tracks of Carla Olson’s album of duets, Have Harmony, Will Travel. And she sang on “Bossier City,” a song which is on both the I See Hawks In L.A. compilation Shoulda Been Gold and Olson’s Have Harmony, Will Travel 2. It’s clear from that earlier work and from this album that they make a great team. Like Rob Waller’s previous solo album, this one features a lot of great musicians, including John York, Kaitlin Wolfberg, Skip Edwards, Benjamin Lecourt, and fellow Hawks member Paul Lacques. And while Hawks bassist Paul Marshall did not play on the earlier solo album, he is on every track of this one.

The album opens with “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” a song written by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio. It’s one that was recorded by Frankie Valli, The Walker Brothers, Cher and other artists. It’s certainly a bit different from the sort of song we are used to hearing from Rob Waller, something that you’d think might be outside of his comfort zone. But apparently his comfort zone is much more expansive than any of us guessed, possibly encompassing all of music, for he does a great job with it. On the song’s very first word, “Loneliness,” he sounds a bit like Roy Orbison. I’m not sure I’ve heard quite that tone from him before. It’s wonderful how after all these years he can still offer surprises like this. Kaitlin Wolfberg plays violin, viola and cello on this track, delivering strong work, as always, and Gia Ciambotti and Gregg Sutton provide some nice backing vocal work. That’s followed by another surprising song choice, “Girl Of My Dreams,” written by Ronnie Thomas and originally recorded by Bram Tchaikovsky, who included it on the 1979 album Strange Man, Changed Man. When I think of Rob Waller, I don’t think of power pop. But here it is. And he delivers an excellent rendition, completely throwing himself into it. Mikal Reid and Carla Olson play guitar on this track.

“There’s No Living Without Your Loving” was written by Paul Kaufman and Jerry Harris. I think the first version I heard was that by Manfred Mann, but it was also recorded by Gene Pitney, Peter And Gordon, and Mink DeVille.  Rob Waller does a wonderful job with this one too. “Without the thrill of your magic touch/There’s no living without your loving/Baby, I love you too much.” And he can especially sell a line like “Then what on earth am I living for.” Mike Clinco plays guitar on this track. This one also features some really nice work by Skip Edwards on piano. (But of course, would you expect anything less from Skip Edwards?) “I’ll Never Dance Again” was written by Mike Anthony and Barry Mann, and was a hit for Bobby Rydell. It was also recorded by Herman’s Hermits. Paul Lacques joins Rob Waller on guitar, so three of the four members of I See Hawks In L.A. play on this track. That’s reason enough to love it. But also, Matt Von Roderick comes in on trumpet halfway through, delivering some great stuff. And Gia Ciambotti and Gregg Sutton’s backing vocal work is so damn good. This is such an excellent rendition of this song, probably the best I’ve heard, and certainly one of the highlights of the disc.

Then we start getting into songs that are much more in line with what we might normally expect from Rob Waller, beginning with “Let Her Go Down.” It was written by Peter Knight and played originally by Steeleye Span. This is one that makes total sense for him to cover, and Rob delivers an excellent, passionate rendition. John York, who was a member of The Byrds in the late 1960s, plays 12-string guitar on this track. (By the way, John York also played on Carla Olson’s Have Harmony, Will Travel.) This track also features some beautiful work by Kaitlin Wolfberg on violin. That’s followed by Freddie Hart’s “Easy Loving,” which was a country hit in the early 1970s. Both John York and Carla Olson play guitar on this track, and JD Walters (who played with Freddie Hart) joins him on pedal steel. I especially love that work on pedal steel. “Life with you is like living in a beautiful dream.” Oh yes, and music like this helps us remain in that beautiful dream.

Rob Waller gives us his take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than The Rest.” Tunnel Of Love is an album I need to revisit. I remember not being all that excited about it when it was released, but this song is clearly a gem. Rob Waller’s voice is absolutely perfect for this song. Obviously, on this CD he proves he can handle anything, but this is exactly the type of song where he usually excels. And it is another of my favorite tracks. John York plays guitar on this track, and Skip Edwards plays accordion in addition to piano. Carla Olson provides backing vocals. That’s followed by “A Woman’s Touch,” another perfect choice for this album. It was written by James Intveld and Gary Nicholson, and included on Intveld’s 2008 album Have Faith. Marty Rifkin (who has played with Bruce Springsteen) is on pedal steel, and his work is certainly a large part of the track’s appeal. But the main element is, of course, Rob’s vocal performance, which is wonderfully soulful and sad. This sort of country song, again, is perfect for him to cover.

When The Everly Brothers album Born Yesterday came out in the mid-1980s, I got a copy on cassette. I keep meaning to get a new copy on CD or vinyl, for it’s a seriously good album, and one I want to revisit. Its opening track is “Amanda Ruth,” a song I love. The Everly Brothers were not the ones to originally record it, but it is their version that I most closely associate with this song. It was written by Chip Kinman and Tony Kinman, and originally recorded by their band, Rank And File, a few years before The Everly Brothers covered it. It is an energetic number, and Rob Waller gives us a strong rendition. Paul Lacques joins him again on guitar for this one, as does Stephen McCarthy of The Long Ryders (you can find footage online of Chip Kinman sitting in with The Long Ryders playing this song, by the way). And Skip Edwards delivers some good work on organ. This is such a fun track. It is followed by the album’s only original composition, “My Favorite Loneliness,” which Rob Waller wrote with Paul Marshall. Paul Marshall provides some backing vocal work on this track, in addition to playing bass, and Kaitlin Wolfberg delivers more beautiful work on violin. It’s a sweet number. Check out these lyrics: “I see you walking in the sand/As the sunset paints the sky/I feel you reaching for my hand/Fireworks on the fourth of July/Now these memories are all I have/But memories are the best/Yes, you gave me my favorite loneliness.” Both John York and Carla Olson play  guitar on this one, and Skip Edwards delivers more great work on piano.

The album’s title track, “See The Big Man Cry,” was written by Patsy Ann Bruce, and originally recorded by Ed Bruce. Charlie Louvin had a hit with it. It’s kind of a playful choice, as Rob Waller is a tall guy. And because the lyrics include a dog (“Said if I had a daddy, he’d buy that puppy for me”) and also lines about a heart breaking (“He looks like his heart will break”), well, I can’t help but think of “A Dog Can Break Your Heart Too,” which was included on the first album from I See Hawks In L.A. Paul Lacques plays guitar on this track. That’s followed by an excellent cover of “Reconsider Me,” which was written by Margaret Lewis and Mira Ann Smith, and was a hit for Johnny Adams. Rob Waller’s rendition is more in the country realm than that by Johnny Adams, more in line with Margaret Lewis’ own version. Stephen McCarthy is on lap steel, and Paul Lacques is on guitar, and this track features wonderful stuff from both of them. And it contains another excellent vocal performance from Robert Waller. He concludes the album with “Gypsy Rider,” a superb choice. It was written by Gene Clark, who included it on the 1987 album he did with Carla Olson, So Rebellious A Lover. And Carla Olson plays guitar and provides harmonies on this track. But besides that reason for this track standing out, this moving song is perfect for Rob Waller’s voice. It deals with being on the road, as many of the best I See Hawks In L.A. songs do. “Crank her over once again/Put your face into the wind/Find another road where you’ve never been.” This song provides a beautiful ending to a fantastic album.

CD Track List

  1. The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore
  2. Girl Of My Dreams
  3. There’s No Living Without Your Loving
  4. I’ll Never Dance Again
  5. Let Her Go Down
  6. Easy Loving
  7. Tougher Than The Rest
  8. A Woman’s Touch
  9. Amanda Ruth
  10. My Favorite Loneliness
  11. See The Big Man Cry
  12. Reconsider Me
  13. Gypsy Rider

See The Big Man Cry is scheduled to be released on October 20, 2023.