San Francisco’s Highway Wolf Releases New EP

San Francisco’s Highway Wolf, led by Mick Hellman of the band Wreckless Strangers, debuts with the EP collection Purdie’s Dream. Anyone desiring or expecting original material may be disappointed as this five-track first release features covers of well-established classics, but any listener with a love for re-invention will be floored by Highway Wolf’s take on these venerable stalwarts.


Produced by Hellman’s frequent collaborators Amber and Tal Morris, Highway Wolf drafts several Bay Area musical luminaries into the fold to help realize these performances. The overall sound of the five tracks defaults to a “classic country” sound, but there are strands of rock and, particularly, blues arising from the cuts. Opening with his take on Steve Winwood’s 80s comeback hit “Back in the High Life” is a relatively bold move on several levels.

A performer isn’t just contending with Winwood’s shadow when they tackle this track. They’re facing off, as well, with Warren Zevon’s aching cover a little over ten years after Winwood’s original. Hellman, as elsewhere during the EP, isn’t interested in reproducing either earlier performance. Instead, he approaches the track as a quasi-country-tinged shuffle. Dave Zirbel’s steel guitar contributions act practically as another singer, albeit wordless. It’s a testament to the elasticity of Winwood’s classic that it continues to thrive even after such an adaptation.

Barbara Higbie’s piano and Hellman’s drumming work together to give his cover of Joe Walsh’s “In the City” an unique Little Feat-like vibe. Hellman chose each of the EP’s five cuts along emotional thematic lines. “In the City” invokes an artistic representation of his day-to-day struggles to get by, but the loose yet confident approach Hellman and his cohorts adopt performing the song belies this. The contrast makes for compelling listening.

His version of Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” traffics in dualities. Hellman uses the song as a vehicle for exploring the contrasts between himself as a father, a son, a wild spirit, and a settled soul. Country and blues music influences collide here with memorable results and he deserves kudos for a varied vocal approach that recalls Stevens, among others. The backing vocals are a tasteful yet exquisite touch and Austin De Lone’s brief keyboard contributions deepen the performance.

The first of two Fleetwood Mac covers, “Blue Letter” hails from the legendary band’s first album with Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. It’s a full-throated rocker that invokes Hellman’s search for personal happiness and romantic love. Divorce the performance, however, from such thematic concerns and Highway Wolf’s take on the neglected Mac classic stands on its own as a superb re-envisioning of the earlier work.

He concludes the release with “Silver Springs”. It’s another of the album’s bold moves to pick a track so thoroughly identified with a female singer, in this case Stevie Nicks, and achieve the same musical and poetic resonance with a male vocal. It has a lighter touch than the Mac’s performances of the same song and revisits the country/Americana vibe so prevalent during the EP’s earlier songs. Highway Wolf’s Purdie’s Dream repurposes the past for the present with dazzling results. 

Nicole Killian

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Nicole loves to go cross country skiing, swimming, reading and critiquing books, listening and critiquing music, some culinary arts, pottery, spending time with my daughter, cheesy horror films.

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