Jesse R. Berlin cut his teeth in the vibrant Tex-Mex Blues scene of 1980s Houston, TX. Nicknamed “Tireman” for his involvement in an off-the-books chop shop (mostly Nissans), Berlin’s first, fledgling bands practiced in his brother Gerry’s auto body garage after-hours (the siblings also worked on early iterations of Laser Tag equipment). After a tedious quasi-hazing ritual that included drinking a mixture of Gatorade and milk, Berlin eventually settled on Tommy DeLiorno and Shep “Jamie” Chance on bass and drums, respectively. With a rhythm section secured, the group—originally called Dip Stick and quickly changed to Steel Wheels—took up residency in “Mama” Rich Daniels’ notorious Devil May Car bar, doing three to five sets a week.
Word of mouth spread and the Wheels soon curated a strong east-Texas following. Armadillo Records took notice and In 1983, Steel was released, credited to Jesse R. Berlin and Steel Wheels. The album peaked at 103 on Billboard and set the stage for 1985’s Wheels Go Round, the group’s second and most popular record, featuring the single “Baby Get Along (Just Don’t Get)” which charted in the high-60s. Hoping to capitalize on the band’s growing buzz—and mainstream breakthroughs by kindred peers like KD Lang and Stevie Ray Vaughan—the hastily issued double-live effort, 1988’s Rollin’ Through Minneapolis (Wheels Don’t Fail My Now) didn’t make much of an impact. By the time the band’s contractually obligated fourth and final release saw the light of day—the redundant, poorly-selling Filling Station: The Very Best of Jesse R. Berlin and Steel Wheels (1989)—tensions had already driven the group apart. DeLiorno joined Bruce Cockburn’s touring band and Chance stuck with Berlin for his first three solo releases, 1990’s Berlin Wall, 1991’s Tireman, and the tepid, predictable covers collection Still Behind the Wheels (1993).
Berlin then went fully solo in an odd and, frankly, embarrassing foray into electronica. Playing solidly against his strengths, 1996’s MachineME (credited to JRB-1) featured no guitar and distant, heavily processed vocals. In hindsight, Berlin’s supreme ignorance of beat-making technology (and complete lack of experience as a producer) leant the music an unintentionally paranoid, ambient, and decidedly minimalist feel, predating Chillwave by at least a decade; at the time, however, it was seen as a colossal misstep. All but ignored by critics and fans, addicted to Excedrin, and profoundly in debt, Berlin took another left turn with 1998’s Reflections. Released simply under the name JESSE, the album was a somewhat confusing stab at Contemporary Christian music. While bringing back the guitar (albeit incredibly sparingly) was a step in the right direction, the record’s insipid lyrics and half-baked religious themes—most prominent on “Learning from Him (Learning from Me)” and the nine-minute groaner “Elijah”—left anyone still following Berlin’s twists and turns scratching their heads.
Surprisingly, Still Searching, a second JESSE album in the CCM vein, was issued in 2001. It sold even more dismally than Reflections and seemed like the final and long-overdue nail in the coffin; indeed, it would be seven years until Berlin resurfaced. “Worth the wait” might be generous, but 2008’s Rotating the Tires, credited to Jesse R. Berlin feat. Steel Wheels (with both DeLiorno and Chance back in the fold, along with new keyboardist Grant Pierce) was certainly a back-to-basics return to form. The band toured North America twice and was featured on the second stage at the Chattanooga Blues Festival in 2009. Old fans tacitly agreed to block out the JRB-1 and JESSE era, critics favorably reappraised Berlin Wall (which Capitol remastered, for the first time on vinyl, no less), and the band even scored some new, young fans thanks to an irreverent but endearing animated television spot for the NBA.
Sadly, what seemed too good to be true—this second life for a hardworking blues band that never quite got their due—ended up being just that. Unable (or unwilling) to get comfortable playing by the numbers, Berlin disbanded the group just as they were on the cusp of reestablishing themselves (demos from the shelved Wheelies showed substantial promise) and isolated himself in his San Marcos studio for three years, writing and recording the bizarre, essentially unlistenable Glitter Lung (2015).