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In the first track of this album Rosanne Cash sings, “A river runs through me.” As a mother, wife, daughter of Johnny Cash and survivor of serious illness, she has a flood of emotional currents to channel into her art. She also has the skill and dedication to meaningful expression that transforms inspiration into resonant music. This is her first album since 2009’s The List, a Grammy nominated album of songs from a list given to her by her father. The Southern heritage of her family provides a roadmap for the stories of her past. It is not necessary to catch the references to all of the people and places the first time you listen, because the songs are as catchy as old-fashioned top-forty pop and country songs. One is immediately struck with how well the songs are put together and how one is drawn to the very sound of Cash’s voice. Repeated plays reward the listener with sweet turns of phrase and slowly deciphered details. The songs are simultaneously personal and universal, sophisticated yet accessible. “Etta’s Song” is from the point of view of Marshall Grant, Johnny Cash’s original bass player, who slapped the strings as the trio established their distinctive “boom-chicka-boom” sound. It is Cash’s touching tribute to a man who was playing music just days before he died. “I’ll make one last rehearsal/ With one foot in the grave.” “The Sunken Land” refers to a hard life lived in the area of Arkansas where Johnny Cash was born. “A Feather’s Not A Bird” is full of details of Cash’s travels, yet it is broad in its appeal. “When The Master Calls The Roll” is a song of newlyweds separated by the Civil War. Its archaic phrasing gives it the feel of a song written long ago, but as with the rest of Cash’s songs, it evokes a profound empathy in the listener. Production by Cash’s husband, John Leventhal, gives each song a unique sound and mood. The use of strings is very effective in the country tinged arrangements, particularly on “The Long Way Home,” where they remind me of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” Whether it is the way the songs are linked by Cash’s emotional journey to her roots, or the time-tested skill of all who are involved, this album is more compelling each time you hear it. —Michael Devlin
Slaid Cleaves is not so much a throwback as he is something that comes around once every so often like a comet or a talent that skips a generation. The last couple of times he came around, perhaps his name was Hank, or Woody. He’s a troubadour with a dusty tenor, a couple of trusty chords and a way with a lyric. His website tagline, "Lives in Texas. Writes songs. Travels Around. Tries to Be Good," understates the demanding creed of a dedicated singer-songwriter who listens hard to find songs in the words and lives of ordinary people. Several years ago I remember him saying that he was experiencing a bit of writer’s block, but apparently all he needed to do was travel and listen long enough for stories worth telling. The title track, about a returning Iraq war veteran, is sung with straightforward earnestness to a hard-driving beat. “Hard times coming home now, can’t get your feet on the ground/ Got some issues, and no one wants you around.” “Rust Belt Fields” is from the point of view of an auto worker whose job disappeared when they “shipped the elbow grease/ Down to Mexico/ And off to the Chinese.” The songs are topical yet timeless, and the pared-down personal narratives connect with you the first time you listen. One could imagine him on a street corner singing, stopping people in their tracks to nod and see themselves in his words. Sometimes his inspiration comes from reflecting on his own life, as in “Without Her” inspired by the passing of his dog. If you have seen Cleaves live you will know how appropriate it is that he pays tribute to “God’s Own Yodeler” Don Walser, complete with Slaid’s own sweet modulations. He finds lots of rhymes for Texas in “Texas Love Song” (perplexes, Lexus, multiplexes, solar plexus, Tex-Mex is and text us). “Whim of Iron’s” catchy title whimsically captures the determined spirit of a woman who wouldn’t be told what not to do. His breakup song (presumably not his breakup) “I Bet She Does,” firmly asserts that it’s over while managing to subtly suggest regret. Slaid Cleaves is pretty much today’s answer to “what would Woody do?” —listening as he travels, writing great songs, keeping the sophistication of simplicity alive as an art form.—Michael Devlin
The son of an English father and Zimbabwean mother, Johnny Clegg acquired a passion for African dance and music as a young man growing up in Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa. The fruit of this passion is crazy catchy, foot tapping, body moving music. On this album, Clegg and his band, though somewhat unplugged, crackle in synergy with the live Cape Town audience. The bass drum beats like a quickening pulse, the guitar weaves its way in a tangy African tuning and resonant voices chant Zulu choruses, while Clegg sings in Zulu and English in a charismatic voice like an earthier version of Sting. The lyrics are political rather than personal from a Western perspective, but the end of apartheid and the struggle to reverse its damage are deeply personal to South Africans. Themes of liberation and celebration of identity are still relevant to people who live in a place where many people are desperately poor and the very real threat of violence lurks in many streets. From the slow triumph over adversity comes music that is hopeful and joyful to its core—and irresistible no matter the life you listen from! —Michael Devlin
[Tragically, one whose beautiful vocal harmonies have graced this band since 1992 has succumbed to a violent death. Bongani Masuku, Clegg’s long-time backing singer was shot to death in a street robbery in Johannesburg on May 17th, 2014 after the band returned from the US leg of a tour supporting the debut of this album. One cannot help but feel that the spiritual nature of the lyrics and chanting melodies have anticipated this tragedy, as Masuku helps to provide his own musical epitaph.]
Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt each have a very distinctive voice and style. Elkin has a strong dusty alto with a light twang, Schmidt at times reminds me of Neil Young, but down about an octave with a whispery edge. They don’t seem to co-write, as each are credited with five songs on the album. They take turns singing lead with the backing of the other, rather than performing duets or strong harmonies. Although they give each other creative space, more than anything else, this album has a genuine sweetness that comes from the chemistry of these dedicated singer-songwriters. Schmidt proposed to Elkin on-stage at the 2013 SXSW festival, singing “Kiss Me Now.” (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQjybzFjzco to hear them tell the story.) This song and “Two White Clouds,” (in which cloud shapes have “big round bellies and baby’s feet”) are proof that happy love songs can be sophisticated. The philosophy embodied in the line from Schmidt’s “Company of Friends,” “I believe in living smitten,” captures the shared ethos of these artists. Elkin’s rendition of this secular hymn is a memorable high-point of the album. Schmidt returns the favor, covering Elkin’s sweet country waltz, “Swing From A Note.” It’s easy to like this music and to wish the duo the very best together! —Michael Devlin
Steve Forbert—Over With You 2012, Blue Corn Music Click cover to buy Produced by Chris Goldsmith, Over With You adds a new flavor to his sound, yet it is still quintessentially, a Steve Forbert album. Similar to the way he takes the stage in a live performance, he starts in fully nuanced emotional emersion from the very first note. It doesn’t give neophyte listeners a chance to catch up and catch on, but those of us who have loved his raspy voice and idiosyncratic timing for more than three decades can hit the ground running. Forbert tight-ropes through the complexities of long-term and sometimes long-distance relationships. As one expects from Steve Forbert, the maturity of the themes is matched by his talent for a catchy melody and the sophistication of the lyrics. He has an uncanny knack for expressing specific emotions in the very sound of his voice and the phrasing of his lyrics, as is apparent in “That’d Be Alright,” as he sings its hopeful lyrics with almost childlike glee. The way Forbert crafts his lyrics has long marked him as one of the premiere singer-songwriters of his generation, but it is his ability to meticulously render emotional truths great and small that sets him apart. The title track features the sad but beautiful lines, “You grew less impressed with all my cans that clatter, still on shore they shine,/ I guess that you just guess that all your plans that matter, won’t much more with mine.” The almost pop-rock sounding “All I Need To Do” sounds like an “I’m so glad you’re gone” song until Forbert ambivalently adds “All I need to do is just to find someone who’s just like you.” “Baby I Know” with the lines “Baby I know you’re only ninety percent happy with me,/ I can get back to a hundred girl/ I can again you’ll see,” is sung without a trace of irony, taking this song to level of genuine sweetness that would cloy in lesser hands. Forbert doesn’t shy from his signature wry humor, In “Sugarcane Plum Fairy” he sings, “Your crazy grandpa spills the wine around the sycamore tree. I hear his bandsaw just inside where your nephews might be.”
Responding to questions about themes in his music and playing older songs in concert (in an interview with the Music Matters Review when Rocking Horse Head was just released), Forbert said, “I'm just trying to write songs that I feel like I can sing, night after night. I have to feel strongly about them to say they are finished and then to sing them for people and certainly to record them.” I have no doubt that Forbert will be proud to sing the songs from this album for many years to come. —Michael Devlin
Annie Gallup—Little Five Points 2012, Waterbug Click cover to buy The milieu of art, poetry, dance and music, its culture and givens inhabit every aspect of Annie Gallup’s work. The people in her songs create, ponder and explore, exposing their foibles over drinks, or in heady but flawed relationships. The intensity of her interest in the subtle shades of truth informs her singularly refined lyrics. Combined with her exquisite musicianship and the sultry quality of her voice, she immerses you in a world that is both cerebral and sensual. So many things are striking about her music. The arrangements are sparse, usually sustained by quiet electric guitar with echoey slides of other instruments. Her vocals whisper, recite and soar to the clear urgings of her muse. Her sophisticated attention to language and imagery is accessible and frequently wryly humorous. The album begins with “Lester William Polsfuss,” a narrative homage to Les Paul that coyly reveals his name in the last line of the song. “The Story of My Life” sheds light on her creative process in its first lines, “I wanted to tell the story of my life/ So I wrote a poem about a river/ How else could I say what I really mean,/ And hope to be forgiven?” “Adam’s Ribs” tells the story of Adam and Eve and their children in a way that is both surreal and wistfully human. “Poets” plays like a film that focusses on each person in turn around a table in a Little Five Points bar as they are stripped bare by the narrator’s lampooning description. Other songs detail moments and reminiscences of relationships in musing depth, using images and juxtapositions as an expressionist painter uses dabs of paint. There is a lot going on in this Little Five Points neighborhood, enough for many a return visit. —Michael Devlin
Eliza Gilkyson—The Nocturne Diaries
2014, Red House Records Click cover for Amazon In the liner notes Eliza Gilkyson states that, “The songs that come in the night are very different than the daylight songs. Usually the big themes crop up in the dark, thoughts of mortality, the state of the world, the plight of mankind, ones failures, losses and fears….” Not exactly unusual territory to which she applies her consummate musicianship, expressive vocals and songwriting and production skills.“Midnight Oil” states the optimistic but practical theme of the album, “It never will be paradise/ It never will be bliss/ But love will make it worth the price/ Even in times like this.” Perhaps the nighttime musings have served to give Gilkyson an appreciation of her place in the parade of generations, pondering what lies ahead for her children and grandchildren in hopes that, “Come tomorrow maybe a new world’s born/ When we ride the old one down.” In “Eliza Jane,” a jaunty, danceable song, she pokes fun at herself for being “so worried about everything.” “Fast Freight” finds her singing her father’s song with the help of her children, Cisco Ryder and Delia Castillo. Gilkyson is at her best looking out of eyes that others may find uncomfortable. She paints a portrait of a victim of domestic violence in “Not My Home,” and in “An American Boy” she inhabits a teenager about to go on a murderous rampage. Although the overriding assumption is that the world is likely to “fade to black,” respite from that fact comes from loving relationships in songs such as “No Tomorrow” and “Touchstone.” In fact, it is the struggle to see things as they are, to find meaning beyond the inevitability of our path and to appreciate the truly valuable and beautiful things in life that gives The Nocturne Diaries a feeling of vitality and a sense of purpose. So, when the grateful chorus of “All Right Here” comes around, “And tonight I confess/ I am forever blessed…” it is far from out of place. —Michael Devlin
Steve Gillette & Cindy Mangsen—Berrymania 2013, Compass Rose Music Click cover for Amazon
Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen (married for a long time, different last names) present Berrymania, fourteen songs by Lou and Peter Berryman (divorced for a long time, same last names). Funny world. Funny songs too. Lou and Peter are hard to describe when you are trying to recruit friends to go see their show. They’re your basic guitar and (gasp!) accordion, Wisconsin baritone and soprano middle-aged singer-songwriter duo. What’s so special? Their songs are witty and original and seemingly inextricable from their personalities and perfect comedic timing. How could Steve and Cindy possibly do their songs? In their own style, of course, with musicianship and personae honed by decades as a performing duo. Though their oeuvre typically ranges from contemporary singer-songwriter to traditional, they can be unselfconsciously deft with a daft song. Gillette and Mangsen make the Berryman’s songs their own, broadening the palette of instruments to include banjo, mandolin, harmonica, concertina, sax, clarinet, cello and violin, as they apply their harmonious singing to good effect. The inspired silliness of Lou and Pete has universal appeal, but Steve and Cindy have chosen songs that seem most authentic when sung by touring musicians of a certain age. The album starts with a jaunty Tin Pan Alley version of “It’s Better Than That,” about the advantages of being a grownup. “Talkin’ At the Same Time” is expertly timed in counterpoint and the kind of crosstalk that comes so easily to couples who have been around the odometer, ("My jokes are George and Gracie’s"). “A Chat With Your Mom” from 1984 wears well as a hilarious admonishment of the use of the “F word.” A recent song, “Now Everything Does,” has a wistful romanticism leavened by gentle irony. “Bowling had a special shoe, now everything does/ Most things made me think of you, now everything does.” The last track is a live version of the previously inimitable “Double Yodel,” in which Steve takes the low notes of each yodel while Cindy takes the high. It’s a fitting close to this tribute, which may for some be a double discovery of delightful duos. —Michael Devlin
John Gorka—Bright Side of Down 2014, Red House Records Click cover for Amazon
Since the 1980s, John Gorka has been singing the songs that get to the heart of many matters, eloquently, thoughtfully and musically. Bright Side of Down finds him at his best, the familiar resonant voice backed with fine playing and brilliant harmony singing by the likes of Eliza Gilkyson, Lucy Kaplanksy, Antje Duvekot, Claudia Schmidt and others. The melodic flow of his lyrics show him still to be a master of the shades and flavors of words, splitting simple phrases into emotions that lean off at different angles. “Time takes almost everything/ Me and time will take my time.” His songs reflect the sensibility of one who has lived long enough to view loss in the context of how you spend the rest of your life. “Don’t Judge a Life” is a powerful expression of this, with so many emotions pivoting on the memorable last verse, “Don’t judge a life by the way it ends/ Losing the light as night descends/ A chance to love is what we’ve got/ For we here and then.../We’re not.” Gorka’s voice is, as always, expressive, but in particular on this track, one can hear how this song touches him as he sings it. “Honeybee” follows, a charming song written for his children. “Procrastination Blues” is a wryly humorous blues with an ironic sense of urgency. “Thirstier Wind” anticipates the coming spring, as does the last track, “Really Spring,” but the feeling is tempered by loss. “In spring some bend to sorrow, the remnants of a grief/ Or maybe just the weight of time on the structures underneath.” This deeply satisfying album may be the finest yet by this preeminent singer-songwriter, and if you share a need to regroup, you will find this to be absolutely essential listening. —Michael Devlin
Annie Gallup and Peter Gallway have once again incited, inspired and nurtured each other’s muses to craft their third CD in as many years. Gallway is the man with the tall-cool voice and elegantly understated touch on the electric guitar and keyboard, Gallup the siren poet with the breezy voice and sure touch on guitar, banjo and lap steel. They share a passion for their art and the details of sound, word and the spaces in-between. It is hard to overemphasize the cumulative effect of the care and attention they give to every aspect of their music. The arrangements are sparse enough to hear every note of every instrument and the hidden shade of meaning of each word and phrase. Even as they share a profoundly similar musical esthetic, they express their own distinct personalities. Gallway gravitates towards a retrospective voice, and many of his songs have a gently yearning quality. “Just Think Back” looks back to the dawn of his love for music with cinematic detail, “Just think back to that very first tune/ Lights up bright in the living room/ And the TV news got your mama in tears/ And the song that played haunts you all these years.” The details illuminate the feelings that are too illusive to describe. “Up in the County” has an epic quality, celebrating the paradox of isolation and belonging under a big sky where “everyone’s family.” It is a place of extremes, where “It’s colder than Satan” and the river rises, “But up in the county you’re closer to heaven.” Gallup is more likely to explore a single moment or a singular reflection, patiently painting the picture with sensual details pushed to their limits by metaphors and musings. “The way she steps from the shower makes you think/ Of Scarlett O’Hara descending the stair.” Whether she is singing or dramatically reciting her lyrics, her voice draws you into her moment. Musically, Gallup and Gallway’s collaboration is elemental and harmonious in mood and voice. Their feel for each other’s rhythm and syncopation obviates the need for a backbeat. This abundantly talented duo seems to have a genuine and gentle regard for each other that makes this a sophisticated and warm listening experience. Once again, an extraordinarily fine and engaging album. —Michael Devlin
A new album from Patty Larkin is like catching up with an old friend after a couple of years, noting the changes in perspective brought on by significant events. When one has enjoyed her music for more than twenty years, one relishes the time to sit down with the lyrics and do nothing else but listen. Patty Larkin has gone through a few difficult years, losing her mother and father and dealing with her sister’s serious illness. The songs are not specifically about the events in her life, but follow the trajectory of her emotions. The fact that she selected from among forty songs has assured a variety of sounds and detailed spectrum of emotion. The album starts with “Best of Intentions,” sung in her unique rhythmic style, but sounding very much like she’s singing quietly to herself, searching late at night for meaning, “I wish there was something I could believe to belong." “Down Through the Wood” maintains a pensive mood, even with its processed guitar and multilayered production. “Soon as I’m Better” is easy to connect with for fans of Larkin’s wry sense of humor, as it acknowledges our expectation that she will again jest at life, "Soon as I'm better/ I'll be funny/ Soon as I'm able to laugh alone." She surely seems able to laugh in “Mando Drum” as she sings the whimsically staccato Patty Larkin lyric, "Double Double Mocha Mocha Grande/ That’s what I want.” Her guitar, as always an exquisitely rhythmic force, is a bit back in the mix, but the arrangements keep our feet tapping as her groove chameleon vocals tell tales of increasing spiritual momentum. The last song “Because of This,” leaves us quietly, yet hopeful with “I am tearful and grateful/ heart full and thankful and blessed." This is a beautiful album by immensely talented artist who after all of this time is still growing and expressing an ever deepening experience of life. —Michael Devlin
It’s clear from the first couple of bars... this music is real and really good! Lynch’s voice has the sweet high country twang of a teen singing on the porch, but also a deeper womanly tone to tell her stories and tug the heart. There are similarities to Dolly Parton, some in the timbre of her voice, a lot in the way she makes you believe as she sings the heck out of a song. Aside from Lynch’s singing, one is struck by the almost symphonic quality to the down-home instrumentation of the arrangements. This band has a lot going on among the fiddles, mandolins, guitars, upright bass and banjos—not just brilliant picking, but sophisticated, seemingly spontaneous composition. Compass cofounder Garry West surely gets kudos for getting the most out of the Claire Lynch band and guests (Alison Brown, Rob Ickes, Tim O’Brien and others) and making sure they sound great on the album.
It is not always easy to express what it is that makes a particular artist special, but by reading her dedication to her father, one can glimpse the seeds of Lynch’s passion for her craft. “This project is lovingly dedicated to my dad, Evan Lutke - who teared up at a beautiful song, was happy to sing at any given moment and who ‘did his dangdest’ to provide me with an understanding of Truth and Love, not to mention a grasp of the binary system. Two out of three ain’t bad Dad! Thanks for the uke.”
Song after song, one beautiful arrangement after another, you realize that Lynch and her crew are faithful to her father’s inspiration, making true and lovingly crafted music. Some of the lyrics cover subjects you will hear in pop country songs. These songs are immediately likable, catchy and brilliantly played. There are also songs, that while easy on the ears, are deeper and more thoughtful than typical pop. At the heart of this album is one such song, “Dear Sister.” It is a cowrite with Louisa Branscomb, whose great, great, great, civil war era aunt preserved letters home from her brothers. The lyrics are as wistfully plainspoken as those letters, simplicity being the best way to express profound feelings.
Lynch covers Al Anderson and Sarah Siskind’s “Doin Time,” a song that triggers its story with the memorable lines, “I was born with a fire in me, buried under coals/ I lit a match when I was seven, burned down our home.” The next verse reveals a broken romance then the chorus repeats three times (in part) “All that I know how to do is run away/ When I forgive myself, that will be the day.” She also covers Pierce Pettis’s “That Kind of Love” an emotionally soaring song that can be taken with equal grace as an ode to love or a prayer. It will fill your eyes with tears.
Claire Lynch can be claimed by fans of many genres, especially bluegrass since she is a perennial nominee and winner of IBMA awards, but the sound she makes with her band truly belongs in the ears of all who love heartfelt music by accomplished artists. —Michael Devlin
Although this album is a bit of a departure from her work with the Wailin’ Jennys, her syle has always been informed by her training at the New England Conservatory of Music as a jazz singer. Masse has admired Dick Hyman’s work since she was a girl and enjoyed performing with him on A Prairie Home Companion, and was even more delighted to collaborate with him on this album. Hyman is a legendary pianist whose six decades of performing, composing and arranging have proved that he is a master of everything from ragtime to classical. His lucid left and right hand technique coaxes every nuance out of the hammered strings of his piano. Masse’s voice is a beautiful instrument, soulful and earthy, yet effortlessly pure toned and rangy. Hyman and Masse anticipate each other mood for mood, and the way the dynamics of the singer match the touch of the piano is a source of constant delight. The recording captures the grand piano and equally grand Heather in a way that makes you feel like you are in the room with them. Classics like “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered,” Lullaby of Birdland” and “Love for Sale” sound fresh and new, and Masse’s own compositions are at home in their company. The album ends with a playful rendition of “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart (and Throw Away the Key),” playfully channeling Lady Day with a girl just wants to have fun attitude. This cross-generational meeting of kindred spirits has given us an album for the ages! —Michael Devlin
Oddly, his voice sounds more or less like you would expect from someone with a name like Gurf Morlix. It’s kind of a cool laid-back rasp, very real and expressive. Also as expected, if you know of his work as a producer, the arrangements are an exquisite Americana blend of acoustic and electric instruments. The studio band is as stellar, as guests Ray Bonneville and Eliza Gilkyson. A glance at the album cover reveals a man with his head in his hands and a time-bomb on the table in front of him. Coupled with the album title, the visual becomes dryly humorous. You won’t find laugh-out-loud jokes in the songs, but there are certainly a fair share of wry turns of phrase. Although the sound is edgy and the lyrics are often from the point of view of people in pain, Morlix manages to elicit respect for the darkest of human moments and the power of the slenderest hope. Gilkyson provides the harmony vocals on the first track, a starkly haunting tale of desperate crime and tormented punishment. The dark mood continues through “Lookin’ for You,” an obsessive song of desire marked by images of blood in shark infested water in contrast with a jaunty slow-walking beat. Song after song, phrases jump out at you— “I slipped through a series of closing doors,” “It’s a small window I’m lookin’ through,” “I didn’t strike the match, but I was at the scene/ Pourin’ on gasoline.” The grooves of sound and twists of expression will keep you listening, even if you are left wondering why you enjoy strolling through these dark places. —Michael Devlin
Note: If you visit Gurf’s website you will find a link to a video called Psycho Blues: Quest for Näcken, which is about finding a harmonica player for a song on this album, “These Are My Blues.” Check it out and don’t miss the music store owner’s response to Gurf’s question about where the harmonica players are!
Moira Nelligan starts the album a cappella with "I Give You Music." One can imagine this song wafting from a porch and through a wooded hollow, beckoning musical pilgrims to share some tunes. She sings, “There’s nothing quite as strong as the feeling in a song.” Though there are titles such as "Two Irish Jigs," "A Reel and a Slide" and "Two Reels," Nelligan is all about the feelings evoked by the strong melodies of the music. Traditional music is alive and vibrant when one pours oneself into it as Nelligan and her fellow musicians do. “Two Irish Jigs” not only dances, but sways and cavorts in the high registers of Nelligan’s fiddle, John Maschinot's uilleann pipes and George Norman's mandolin. Nelligan's fiddling at times reminds me of a penny whistle in the way it slides through the sinuous melodies of the songs. Her strong pure voice is the sound of a real woman singing from her heart, effortless as she smooths the antique turns of phrase of the traditional “Johnny Shoemaker.” Nelligan's interpretation of Celtic music is flavored by her Southern roots. Similarly, her “Irishish” (her words from the liner notes) cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" is at home with the rest of the tunes, and in fact may be the high point of the album. Jaw-dropping virtuosity, heartstring tugging attention to melody and a gorgeous blend of Irish and mountain sensibilities make this an album not to miss. And miss it you might, because Nelligan has turned most of her efforts to her Nelligan School of Traditional Music. She teaches adults and children to play by ear, similar to the way one would learn to speak one’s native language. She finds traditional roots music to be perfect for this type of learning, given that such music passes organically from generation to generation. Kind of makes you want to move to Georgia to take weekly lessons! In the mean time, you can still get this album by contacting Decatur CD at 404-371-9090, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. —Michael Devlin
Barry Ollman—What’ll It Be?
2014, Blue Colorado Music
Listening to his light tenor voice and well-crafted songs for the first time, you may feel that you have heard Barry Ollman before, or at least, that you should have. Surprisingly, although he has been making music for decades, this is his first album. He starts with “Imogen’s Lament,” a song inspired by the artistic spirit of photographer Imogen Cunningham. Although she died in 1976, Ollman’s song finds her reacting to the contemporary world of cameras in every phone. This song about artistry and change is touching and thought-provoking regardless of your familiarity with Cunningham. The second track “Painting the West,” combines influences—a Woody Guthrie painting from 1936 and the work of William Henry Holmes, an archaeologist known for a tryptic illustration of the Grand Canyon. Ollman’s interest in Guthrie is anything but casual. He is a noted archivist and collector of Woody Guthrie memorabilia and member of the Advisory Board of the Woody Guthrie Foundation. A phrase in this song (describing the colors of a sweater) captures the essence of Ollman’s muse, “simple and true.” Ollman's informed points of view would be for naught if not for his talent for accessible, revealing lyrics, paired with engaging melodies. Each track is worth your attention. His vocals and guitar work have an easygoing charm, like the best of James Taylor. Talented colleagues Graham Nash, Garry Tallent, David Amram, Radoslav Lorkovic and others lend support as the tunes segue through a melange of mellow rock influences. The album would be at home in the vinyl era, when a new album was something you kept on the turntable, playing it several times over a number of days, the songs playing frequently in your gray-matter shuffle-mode. —Michael Devlin
The fact that this is an odds-against album is a small part of this story but worth mentioning. That Pete Seeger, in his early 90’s and Lorre Wyatt, coming back from a career halting stroke in 1996, still have the talent and strength to make music is inspiring. That they still have so much to say that needs to be heard makes this a vital work. The opening track, “God’s Counting on Me... God’s Counting on You,” sets the tone. The theme is about working together so that “We’ll all pull through.” There are af few specifically political references such as, “It’s time we turn things around/ Trickle up not trickle down.” The song title is also the refrain, reclaiming territory staked out by Seeger and others in the Sixties when progressive causes were expressed in religious terms. The style of this song is unabashedly singalong, with Pete trading verses with Bruce Springsteen and Lorre Wyatt, and with a children’s choir and a stage full of other singers. The duo of Seeger and Lorre gracefully comment on their own seniority and roles with songs such as “Old Apples” (“still can make good sauce”) and “Keep the Flame Alive.” Once again, these folksingers are way ahead of the politicians as they quote the preamble to the constitution in the title track and express optimism for the only sensible option for survival, “Our differences we can transcend.” In addition to Springsteen, notable guests Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Tom Morello and Dar Williams lend their voices. Pete Seeger’s a cappella rendition of “Strange Lullabye” may move you to tears when you think about what it may feel like to be over 90 years old singing this song to a grand- or great-grandchild. “How I prayed you’d be born in time that was calm/ To the trill of the birds not the roar of the bomb/ Though the world is atremble with sickness and fear/ Close your eyes rest awhile, I’ll be near.” “Bountiful River” closes the album, bringing to mind not only the Hudson river that Pete did so much to renew, but the lifetime of song he has given us, “O Bountiful River, we will never part.” What a gift of warmth, wisdom and wit. —Michael Devlin
Various—Moody Bluegrass—A Nashville Tribute to The Moody Blues
2013, Red River Records That’s right, the Moody Blues, bluegrass style. Pretty much like seeing a menu item for pudding served al dente, you have no idea what this might be like until, in this case, you have a listen. At one time I was a fan of the Moody Blues (and I have the LPs to prove it!). I remember the ponderous wall of sound arrangements playing havoc with my record player, flinging the needle around in and sometimes out of the grooves. With apologies to those who still love the Moodys, their florid bombast and the local progressive rock DJ’s tendency to play “Tuesday Afternoon” every Tuesday afternoon, wore out my original fascination with the band. So it was with some trepidation that I regarded the arrival of this two-CD collection. It didn’t take long to realize that this combination is brilliant. The first track, “Lovely to See You” has an inspiring gospel-grass sound, featuring the late Harley Allen on lead vocals. This is followed by Tim O’Brien crooning “Land of Make Believe” with assistance from Alison Krauss. It’s like that pretty much all the way through, with the very finest bluegrass musicians giving their all to familiar and highly melodic songs from the psychedelic era. The translation from somewhat muddy progressive rock arrangements to the subtle precise interplay characteristic of bluegrass does wonders for these songs. Tempo and rhythm changes on songs such as “Ride My See-Saw” are more of a reinvention of the songs than mere sprucing up. Even “Tuesday Afternoon,” given a pretty faithful interpretation, sounds jaunty with guitars, banjo, mandolin and fiddles. Contributing musicians include Vince Gill, Sam Bush, John Cowan, Ricky Skaggs, Larry Cordle, Lionel Cartwright, Jon Randall, Stuart Duncan others including the Moody Blues themselves. After listening to this fine collection a few times, it will be hard to hear these songs in your head any other way but bluegrass style. —Michael Devlin
Note—this set combines two previously released albums in a single package.
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This documentary tries to capture in a couple of hours, the story of a place that funneled, channeled, inspired, befriended, encouraged and gave an audience to an eclectic mix of musicians. It’s a big story, about a place and inevitably the times that were “a changing.” The film starts with the early days of the club when the founders, Joyce (Kalina) Chopra and Paula Kelley, presided over the Cambridge branch of the folk revival, with Joan Baez blossoming before their eyes. People came and listened, brought guitars and friends, played into the night in the club basement and wandered off to continue playing. Eric Von Schmidt and others discovered the work of legendary blues masters such as Son House, Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt and brought them to play at the club. Although the management of the club changed over the years, Club 47 was always known as the place to go to experience music that was true to the roots that inspired it. The pigeon-holes that may have given other venues their identity were meaningless in a place that hosted the likes of Doc Watson, the Chambers Brothers, the Staples Singers, Bob Dylan, Jim Kweskin, Tom Rush, Judy Collins and so many others. The film features many of the key figures in Club history reminiscing about their time on the scene. They share a feeling that the club was a focal point of a movement and a place for like-minded people explore and create. Several mentioned the connection of the music to the great issues of the day, the Vietnam War and the struggle for Civil Rights. Not only was the music important, but it was also important to take a stand and be involved. Their idealism had not only the naive enthusiasm of youth but the urgency of effective action. Songs became the lightening rods of popular political struggle. Although, as a culture, we no longer seem to have the attention span necessary to sustain an artistic movement that brings about significant change, this film points hopefully to the latest incarnation of the venue, Club Passim, which itself could be the subject of its own documentary, considering how it has nurtured a few generations of nationally touring (if under the radar) singer-songwriters. Club 47 closes in the present with Hayley Reardon, a teenager somewhat dwarfed by the big blond guitar she plays. She sings “We could all save each other if we just stand together,” lyrics that could become an anthem if a movement were to rise up singing. —Michael Devlin