It has been a while since the music world has heard much from the usually prolific Doug Hoekstra. Hoekstra recorded his last album, the appropriately-titled ‘Waiting’, at home while awaiting the birth of his first child, Jude, in the winter of 2002. Since then, other than a brief tour of Britain in early 2004, the Chicago-born but now Nashville-based veteran of eight previous albums has, however, been unusually quiet, concentrating instead on family life with his wife, Molly, and bringing up Jude.

Now, however, he is back and with not just one, but two new records. The first is a new 20 minute collection of studio recordings, ‘Six Songs’, while the latter ‘Su Casa, Mi Casa’, his ninth full-length record, is a 70 minute compilation of some of his best live recordings in his now 10 year solo career.

Hoekstra has always been a diverse talent and something of a musical magpie. His past recordings, both those with long defunct country group Bucket No 6, ‘Bucket No 6 (1991)’ and ‘High on the Hog’ (1993), and his solo records, 'When the Tubes Begin to Glow' (1994), 'Rickety Stairs' (1996), ‘Make Me Believe' (1999), ‘Around the Margins’ (2001), ‘The Past is Never Past’ (2001) and ‘Waiting’ (2003), have all found him pushing musical boundaries, and flitting with different genres. It has not been unusual to find him, often several times in the same song, experimenting with the blues, the avant garde, jazz, folk, pop, rock and soul.

The excellent ‘Six Songs’, the first release of Hoekstra’s new label Wing Ding Records, proves to be no exception to this.

His lyrical, whispered vocals draw and lair his listener in from the very first moments of the opening song, ‘Diminishing Returns'. A breezy country number which uses both a hurdy-gurdy farfisa and also throws into its melody a touch of 60’s Stax soul, it pours scorn on the faltering Bush administration. “There may be times when we must talk/And other times when we must act/How many time will we be burned/In the land of diminishing returns” Hoekstra sings, appalled at his country’s policy of lack of social care, but at the same holding out enough faith in his fellow man that he will eventually be able to somehow push and rise above it towards something better.

Similarly politicized, ‘Snake Oil’ warns of false prophets. A stark, charged folk acoustic number written shortly before the last American election, its has Hoekstra duetting with throaty blues singer, Antonio Meeks, and draws acute, satirical parallels between the current US government and the 19th century horse doctors and con men who would drive into the towns of the Old West and set up their stalls to offer the keys to eternal life. “There’s a poison in our rivers/And it’s in the food we eat/One thing you can count on/History repeats” Hoekstra mournfully lilts.

Funky rock ‘n’ roll number ‘Picture of the Soul’ in contrast finds Hoekstra out on the road, struck by the beauty of the Highlands and its towns of Inverness and Ullapool, but tellingly missing the recently born Jude and his family.

On the final track, the reflective ‘Watercolor Rose’, Hoekstra merges his pattering acoustic guitar with the fluttering French horn work of guest player Beth Graham, and pays wistful tribute to his Chicago childhood and summers spent playing baseball in the street, autumns kicking up piles of leaves, and an early romance struck up in a William Shakespeare class. “Ain’t it funny what we remember?” he sings, softly laughing at himself as both the song and the EP finishes.

A lot of the great joy on ‘Six Songs’ comes from Hoekstra’s ability to reflect life both in its large scale and more intimate tragedies and glories. Despite its often soft sound, he combines on it the fiery dignity of Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs with a Frank Capra-style optimistic belief in the every man, and this ability is further confirmed on ‘Su Casa, Mi Casa.’

Described as an “official live bootleg”, it first began to take shape in February 2004 when Hoekstra started to sift through a cluttered over abundance of cassettes and CDs of his own gigs that promoters, fans and sound men had given him over the years, and that were littering his music room. Released on Fundamental Records, the 17 song ‘Su Casa, Mi Casa’ highlights performances, stretching from as far back as 1996 to as recently as early 2004, and finds Hoekstra playing venues in cities and towns as far apart from each other as London and New York, Chicago and Berlin, as well as several other points in between. Sometimes he appears with a band, but more often with either one of a string of backing singers, or alone accompanying himself with just an acoustic guitar and occasionally a harmonica.

At one level ‘Su Casa, Mi Casa’ makes a wonderful Greatest Hits package. There is a sparky version of his civil rights anthem ‘Birmingham Jail’ recorded with backing singer Colleen Burke Kave in Ann Arbor ; a rousing, gutsy band rendition of ‘Sam Cooke Sings the Gospel’, his tribute to the legendary singer, taped in Philadelphia, and best of all a stark, stripped down version recorded in Florida of Hoekstra’s masterpiece ‘Black and White Memories’ about his slow sinking away from his once hero-worshipped older brother.

At another level ‘Su Casa, Mi Casa’ provides also a unique and intimate insight into Hoekstra’s back catalogue, showcasing on tracks such as the latter which Hoekstra performs alone his songs at their most raw, and as they were originally written before they were expanded upon in the studio.

Perhaps what may be most surprising to fans, and especially to those who have not attended any of Hoekstra’s increasingly rare live shows, is his on-stage patter and agility as a raconteur. On ‘Giving Up Smoking’, which is about “the importance of sacrificing and what you gain from sacrificing”, he pays moving testimony to his father and latterly Molly, who both gave up smoking for his benefit, before cracking up his Chicago audience by talking about the differences between American and European smokers. ‘Laminate Man’, Hoekstra’s spoof on the music business and the shady, but ridiculous characters who invade it, has him finding his own Laminate Man in the crowd at the London 12 Bar. This proves so comical that co-singer Kat Parsons becomes so helpless with laughter that she is briefly unable to continue. The reflective ‘Here and Now’ from the same venue is meanwhile proceeded by a funny story about Hoekstra’s experience of taking his aged parents to their first ever rock concert, a Bob Dylan show.

‘Six Songs’ and ‘Su Casa, Mi Casa’ successfully intertwine and pull together the several different strands and layers of Doug Hoekstra’s multi-faceted musical personality-the concerned social commentator and feisty political agitator, the tender-hearted autobiographer, the stand-up comic and the gritty craftsman. He has produced with both of these comeback records some of his most captivating material yet.











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