It's something to contemplate when an artist of Tony Joe White's stature waits until his 29th record to make the album he's been dreaming about for most, if not all, of his career. It's the mark of a visionary artist to nurture deep within the smoldering coal of a flame that needs room to burn hot and true, until the conditions are right for its creation and unveiling. It doesn't matter how long it took, however, what makes a difference is that the Swamp Fox is heard unadorned and unfettered by studio embellishments or safety nets. This is TJW raw and direct, full of grit, truth, and an unsettling sensuality. This is the sound of the night, where the bullfrogs, snakes, hungry gators, broken dreamers, haunted desperadoes, lonesome travelers, and wild-eyed seekers of the unspeakable all come together in one man's musical dreams to speak.
Beginning is the sound of the dirty, funky, hot, and muggy blues. The setting could be a juke joint out in the swamp or a sitting room with a handful of couples slithering in the darkness or a noisy barroom reduced to a hush by the subtle power and gripping conviction of the stomp in Tony Joe's foot, his chunky, percussive snake-charming guitar, and the forbidding whisper and moan that's in the grain of his voice. This is untamed, unrelenting seduction and instruction music fashioned from country, blues, and rock & roll. From the deep bottom of "Rich Woman's Blues" to the desolate, broken weekday-after poetry in "Going Back to Bed" and the mournful, slinky, folk-gospel of "Raining On My Life," White lets one image fall down on another, with the riffs and hooks to anchor them in his own personal mythology and iconography of life and love that translates from the grooves through the speakers and into our hearts. One of White's particular gifts is, even when singing in the first person, he offers an empathetic view so close to the bone that we not only know the people in these songs, we've been them. In addition to all this we are presented with, also included are the heartbreakingly desolate folk tune "The Drifter" and the mariachi-flavored "Down By The Border," a love song so broken, that nothing is ever resolved, no wound is ever closed; there's only the song and its ghostly echoes ringing out over the empty miles and abandoned years. In White's voice, the listener can hear the want calling her name over time and tide. That said, it remains true that White takes his principal inspiration from the deep, greasy, low-down, funked-up blues. It's the same blues that offers the hint of forbidden fruit fulfills seductive promises and gets to the root of the emotions that sear and transform and/or bring people together for the common cause of celebrating in order to forget. Finally, it's the same blues that makes a man sit alone with a guitar in a cabin to moan and sing out his life into the welcoming midnight sky. Tracks like "The Ice Cream Man," with its backbone slipping, in-between-the-sheets groove, the dark, Delta tragedy folk blues of "Clovis Green," the malevolence and resignation in the right-hand boxy strum on "More to This Than That" (where the listener can imagine the screaming electric guitars and shuffling drums, though the acoustic version is what makes it possible), and the slippery, backwoods six-string stomp and slip of "Who You Gonna Hoo-Doo Now." The songs on Beginning add up to a cipher of a record; it's so fully Tony Joe White that we wonder why it took so long, yet, so out of step, time, and place with everything else that's going on out there it has no place to dwell except its own. It is mercurial and deeply mysterious, it may speak plainly but it gives up its secrets slowly. All of this is told on "Rebellion," the closest thing to a manifesto that White has ever issued. In its knotty blues wrangling, White lays out the truth and the challenge. He makes his own way because he has to - he's an artist possessed with the same kind of restless vision that drove every real one, from Stephen Foster to Ray Charles, from Louis Armstrong to Hank Williams, and from Chuck Berry to John Lennon, to make his mark - no matter the cost. This new issue is a precious commodity, because in it, one can hear his entire history as it has played itself out on those 28 previous records, and how the foundations he's built will provide a home for that now brightly burning flame to shine for decades to come. Given an honest listen, it will provide something like that for others as well.
- Thom Jurek (All Music Guide)