Recorded at his home studio, On Track Recording Studio in Imperial Beach, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Dave Preston recorded, mixed, and mastered Alligator Shoes and also wrote the ten songs that make up the album with a run time just shy of 43 minutes.
Preston sings as well as plays acoustic guitar and bass throughout; he programmed drums for “Funny How It Goes” and “Sweet Mary” on which he also plays banjo. Other musicians include Doug Pettibone on lap steel, electric mandolin, pedal steel, and electric guitar; Bob Ryan on electric guitar, guitar, and baritone guitar; Tom Wolverton on dobro; Steve Peavey on concertina; and anytime you hear harmony, that would be Preston’s wife Cheryl Jackson Preston, whose voice rings especially sweetly on “Goin’ Down to Mississippi.” I didn’t forget to mention Candy Girard on violin, I just had to leave her for last so I could elaborate on her contribution. From the first pull of the bow, her presence is so perfectly placed—the accents, the chords, the ups and downs, the subtleties, the flourish—it’s all magic. Apart from Preston’s voice, her star shines brightest.
“Money Tree” is the first song and represents the fullest arrangement on the album. Starting off with just acoustic guitar, Preston sets the pace, solidly picking the driving rhythm. He joins in on hand slaps and bass with Doug Pettibone on lap steel to embellish the drive. Bass and lap steel drop out as Preston begins to sing, “Well, I never had much money, I never had my own band, give me half a dollar, and I might could make a stand…” The effects on his voice are edgy and raw, sounding like an old radio. It suits the lyrics somehow as he talks about the many people, including the good Lord and Satan, which could have given him a money tree. I see hardship, old-fashioned revival tents in the desert, and the helpless mindset of victimhood. Bass rejoins in the middle of the first verse, and lap steel reappears on the second verse, grinding and gritty. I begin to hear Pettibone peppering the background with electric mandolin. Beginning with the second chorus, Cheryl Jackson Preston comes in to sing harmony in the style of a backcountry ballad singer, well matching the flavor of the song. At 1:53 lap steel takes the lead on a build of all the instruments, ultimately rising to a solo with long notes that smoke and burn, and then simmer enough for Preston to start singing again. At 3:55 there’s another short build that finishes off the song. This is a good opener.
“Funny How it Goes” is the second song and introduces us for the first time to Candy Girard on violin right out of the gate. The tone on her instrument has a bit of a rasp and supports the sass she’s got when she plays it. The song mentions the cry of a train and at 1:40 we get a chance to hear that fiddle blow the whistle a few times. Flirtatious and mischievous, she is a joy to hear. The whole song has a low-key but steady groove set by the bass and chord fills from the acoustic guitar. Yet another first-time introduction is to Bob Ryan on electric guitar, who keeps us on our toes with intricate accent and counter lines in the melody. At 2:16 we get a minute’s worth of his sweet guitar solo—plenty of lower notes, smooth and rolling, then tight bursts of quickness, full of purpose. Through all of this we hear the violin intensifying the underlying mood with clear chords and single-note expressions, and almost sounding like a horn section in her attack.
“Mrs. Pennywhistle” starts off with acoustic guitar and plucking on the violin, then on to enticing bowed lines sounding theatrical, and indeed we do get a gruesome look behind the curtain on this one. Preston’s voice is close to my ear, laid back and relaxed in contrast to what he has to tell. The protagonist in this story has a lovely shop in Liverpool, by all accounts a proper business, except for how she deals with Mr. P. “Chop chop chop, she makes a bloody mess…” I can’t help thinking of the madness of Sweeney Todd. At 1:44 the violin plays a melodic and agile solo with a tense and sinister air, playful and twisted. The arrangement is just guitar, violin, and Preston’s vocals; it is strikingly full and complete.
The title track “Alligator Shoes” opens with acoustic guitar and bass, and features violin on top, as she moves this wild song along at a fast clip. This is about one of those magical late-night parties in the swamp, playing the blues with all the animals in attendance. Trouble starts with the gators. Preston is unapologetic and cheeky as he sings, “crickets stopped singing and the gators gathered round, the air stood still and you could hear the sound. Big gator said to the rest of his crew, ‘Hey boys, he’s wearing alligator shoes.’” That’s the attitude: a bit of fear and big-time exhilaration. It swings like that all the way through. At 2:43 violin has a blazing solo, artful and original, adventurous highs and lows; electric guitar joins in underneath, and we are on the run. They take it almost all the way to the end, and it closes with the sound of a beefy car engine turning over.
“Standing on a Wire” floats effortlessly forward beginning with Preston on acoustic guitar, Steve Peavey on concertina, and Doug Pettibone on pedal steel. It creates an atmosphere, an environment where I want to live, although it paints a picture of resigned melancholy. Preston sings, “…the crowd below starts screaming as I begin to fall, it’s really what they came for, it’s what they paid for one and all.” This is about accepting your lot, laying down in the bed you made, but it also retains the slightest bit of hope in the chorus, “…yes, I’m flying… I’m always flying.” At 3:13 the concertina takes a subdued solo; it seems to perfectly contradict the overall feeling of despair. It is sorrowful yet lighthearted somehow, as if remembering surer and better times. The pedal steel rises up at 3:40 with a solo so achingly beautiful I gasp just a little. I feel for the man standing on the wire and who knows what will happen to him, but as the solo takes the song to its close, it sounds to me like a lesson in endurance and resilience, even if he doesn’t realize it himself. This is my favorite, and it tugs at my heart and emotions every time.
Other songs include “Nothing at All,” “Goin’ Down to Mississippi,” “Deep Hibernation,” “Cherry Jubilee,” and “Sweet Mary.” Physical CDs and downloads are available at jdprestonmusic.com and at any of his shows around town, as well as the Apple iTunes Store. Alligator Shoes is a well-taught lesson in “less is more.” Be good to your ears and hear it for yourself.