Bisbee is located roughly 10 miles from the Mexican border, but a stroll through its colorful architecture and storied downtown proves the city is influenced by much more than governmental transitions. On his latest album “Liminal,” musician Keith Allen Dennis traces the transitional nature of Bisbee’s history, culture, spirituality—and yes, geography—in a musical style he calls “mystic blues.”
The musical style, with influence from folk and psychedelia, stems from a lyrical emphasis on the metaphysical, periods of “creative illness” and a healthy dose of experimentation—all held together with a 12-string blues playing style inspired by Delta greats.
Dennis began writing the songs for Liminal in 2015, concurrent with a growing interest in spirituality and rumblings of political change on the horizon. The album’s conception continued into 2020, so there are references to quarantine, but it is far from one-note. Dennis and fellow Bisbee musician Stuart Oliver began recording the album in February 2020 as global upheaval neared its apex. But despite this, Liminal makes room for quiet reflection, and even a bona fide love ballad.
“You know Bisbee is my home, it’s where I really hit my stride as a human being, in my ‘Jesus year’ of 33. I was couch surfing in Tucson before I snagged a job here, basically homeless and it’s been a long, slow climb out of all that,” Dennis said. “In my own little world I live in, the Mule Mountains are the omphalos, the place where heaven and earth meet, and so much of my music is about the heavens. But you know heaven implies earth, which implies heaven, etc. They’re one of those binaries, there’s that boundary between the two, and to cross it you gotta go to the ‘high places’ where they touch.”
One such “high place” is featured on the album’s cover art: the iconic “B Mountain” that rises above the city’s main drag. The mountain is even featured on the cover of his previous album, also titled “Mystic Blues.”
“Liminal” opens with “Twilight Zone,” a blues song in the grooving desert style that sees Dennis reflecting on quarantine and political division, singing how left is right and black is white, all while mixing red pills and blue bills into purple lines. The most overtly timely song on the album, it’s also the most familiar for fans of Arizona folk/rock.
This style changes on the erratic song “Wikiup,” which features a jerking central melody, percussion of handclaps and clacking background instruments, and some of Dennis’ wildest vocals on the album—a fitting style for a song named after raggedy brushwood huts.
But after the energetic opening songs, “Liminal” transitions into a more mellow and lush direction. Rather than commenting on current politics and the “border militarized zone,” Dennis reflects on nature and the stories filling the land around him.
“There’s ‘Haunted,’ which is about the paranormal, ghost-tour industry you find in so many of these little mining towns like Bisbee, or Jerome,” Dennis said. “Towns built in that dreamtime of ‘American greatness’ when the empire was ascendant, and now the places where tourists and TV crews go to engage in this sort of pop-necromancy trying to catch a glimpse through the veil separating living and dead, and doing it in these small mining towns which usually carry the whiff of the semi-abandoned ‘ghost town’ in their architecture and their declining populations—again, a place where the loss or change in status is literally part of the landscape.”
The central track, “Eventide,” is a gorgeous representation of day to night—again with the transitions—with a steady frame drum beat, subtle shakers, and a warm slide string guitar backing. Anyone who’s spent a dusk in the Sonoran Desert should be able to hear the purples and oranges flowing from this romantic song that finds beauty on both sides of a division.
“It is in those in-between spaces, those liminal spaces, where the divine comes into manifestation. So maybe dividing everything up is Jehovah’s way of giving himself some breathing room to actually do what he does—and since there’s no pantheon, no ‘division of labor’ in monotheism, well, Jehovah wears all the hats: wrathful judge, merciful redeemer and trickster. For us mortals though, it gives us a chance to do the ‘great work’ of healing and reconciling those divisions,” Dennis said. “I think it was T-Bone Burnett that said all songwriting comes down to mommy issues or daddy issues, and the ‘Heretic’s Song’ definitely falls in the latter camp.”
“Heretic’s Song” is a seven-minute folk epic that closes out “Liminal,” rife with Biblical references, existential ponderings, and some of the most passionate guitarwork on the album. It’s a far cry from the quirkiness of “Wikiup” or the close country harmonies of “Stay With Me,” indicating a true journey across the titular threshold by way of the mystic blues.
“In my reckoning, the difference between magic and mysticism is that the former is something that one would do willfully, and the latter is something that happens to you whether you like it or not. And I guess for some people, you know, maniacs and what not, when you go through those changes they can be accompanied by some paranormal episodes, synchronicities popping off all over the place, a dire need to metabolize all the pain into some sort of personal mythology or allegory just to make it make sense and to try to navigate your way back to solid ground. I mean, the root of all myth is trauma, right?” Dennis said. “William Blake said, ‘The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.’ Not gonna lay claim to any great wisdom, but I will say in my case Humpty Dumpty did indeed put himself back together again.”