Lone Wolf, Jessica Lee Wilkes' debut recording as a solo artist, offers not the slightest hint of doubt. Its five tracks are a 12-minute blast of full-throated, deep-groove 1950s-style rock, with the bassist/singer/songwriter belting in an unvarnished, brassy voice that sounds wholly natural.
Listening to the new EP, it's hard to believe that Wilkes - who will perform at RIBCO on August 11 - questioned herself a lot. She spent the past half-decade playing and singing in J.D. Wilkes & the Dirt Daubers, but - unlike her music-biz-vet husband (the leader of the aforementioned band) - she's relatively new to performing and recording.
Making her introduction to the world in such an abbreviated form, she said in a recent phone interview, was partly a function of money, but it was also an acknowledgment of inexperience. She had plenty of songs for a longer recording, but she didn't want to get in over her head.
"I wanted to see if I could do it at all," she said. "This was sort of like my first little test run ... , a way to get my feet wet and try to see what I'm capable of as an independent artist."
The album was tracked quickly (and largely live) with an experienced group of collaborators: drummer Jason Smay (of J.D. McPherson's band), guitarist Eddie Angel (of Los Straitjackets), and saxophonist Kellie Everett (of The Hooten Hallers). Wilkes said she wasn't sure how she'd fare working with that group of professionals, but her preparation going into the studio made the process relatively smooth.
Still, she said, dipping her toes into solo waters required a willingness to embarrass herself. "The first time I performed in front of anybody, especially singing, I was basically talking I was so nervous," she said. "I got upset about it afterward, but there's something about it ... . You've got to be slightly crazy to get up in front of people and make a fool of yourself and know that you're going to, and still keep doing it. ... I enjoy it, so I keep doing it."
There's nothing embarrassing about Lone Wolf, which avoids retro pastiche by balancing classic styles with modern muscle, particularly on the title track and "Groove's Too Shallow." "A lot of what I listen to ... is '50s rock and roll and soul music and R&B ... , and that's a sound that I would love to be a part of the music," she said. "But I live in the here and now, and I try not to stifle what happens naturally. ... I don't want to squash that down for the sake of sounding vintage or pure. I'm not interested in making some weird replica of '50s rock and roll."
While she's been writing songs since she was a child, the 30-year-old said she only got serious about playing music at age 22, and the formation of the Dirt Daubers was largely accidental. "We didn't set out to make a band," she said. "We just played around the house a lot together." J.D. Wilkes was offered a gig in London in conjunction with a 2009 screening of his documentary film Seven Signs, and from that show the Dirt Daubers were formed.
"I was of course nervous," Jessica Lee Wilkes said, "because I'd never played in front of anybody before."
Although Lone Wolf comes and goes in a flash, it's easy to see a larger picture. Wilkes' lead-vocal contributions to the Dirt Daubers' 2013 album Wild Moon serve as foreshadowing and complement. A stark departure from the band's old-timey origins, the record is a rollicking, amped-up affair, and you can infer an itch in both husband and wife; J.D. has a new Legendary Shack Shakers record due later this year (marking the band's 20th anniversary), and Jessica Lee announced her arrival with this exclamation point of an EP - with plans for a full-length record next year.
Until then, you could put together a coherent, shapely, and pretty terrific album by combining Lone Wolf and the handful of Wild Moon songs she sings. The tortured, piano-rooted lament of the Dirt Daubers' "No More My Love" provides some refreshing breathing room - and shows that Wilkes' EP merely teases the breadth of her considerable chops.
Jessica Lee Wilkes will perform on Tuesday, August 11, at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue, Rock Island; RIBCO.com). The free show starts at 10 p.m., with the venue's Turntable Tuesday vinyl-spinning event beginning at 8 p.m. and continuing after the performance.
For more information on Wilkes, visit JessicaLeeWilkes.com.