Welcome to Issue 30 of MMReview!
Reviews: (Click titles to jump to reviews)
Blue Rock Studios came to my attention as the place Darryl Purpose recorded his new album and staged his CD release show. As I visited the website I noticed that they would soon be webcasting a show by Mindy Smith (read the review here). I “attended” the webcast and soon was filled with a sense of how lucky I was to be in the presence of such a true artist. My “luck” was made possible by the extraordinary vision and dedicated effort of Billy and Dodee Crockett. Together they moved and shook what was necessary to design, fund and build a perfect music space, develop a concert series, provide hospitality for the musicians and sweat the details of flawless sound and video production.
A quick visit to the website reveals that Mindy Smith and Darryl Purpose are but the latest musicians to perform at Blue Rock since the Fall of 2006. Many of the featured artists are well know by anyone who loves the music of the modern troubadour. Eliza Gilkyson, Jesse Winchester, Mary Gauthier, Iris Dement and Chris Smither are among the stars of the singer-songwriter circuit. But be prepared to be wowed by others you will discover here—Amy Speace, Danny Schmidt, Darrell Scott, Darryl Purpose and many others. The common thread linking those who perform at Blue Rock is consummate musicianship and what Darrell Scott referred to in an interview as “telling some kind of truth.” If you visit http://bluerocktexas.com/videos/ you will find a collection of three minute videos with clips from the shows and interviews with the guests. One could spend an evening going from one clip to the next, enjoying your favorites and taking note of new artists. The performances are all pristinely recorded and professionally filmed and in the interviews, Billy always seems to be riding the same wavelengths as his guests. The fact that each video clip ends with a link to the artists' websites (as opposed to, say, the Studio) says a lot about the priorities of Blue Rock. It’s about the artists, in much the same way as it is about “some kind of truth” for the musicians.
Watching these videos, one cannot help but notice the beauty of the facilities and appreciate what it means for Blue Rock to call itself an “artist ranch.” Blue Rock itself is a work of art. Billy explains, “We have an abiding myth that Blue Rock was once a soldiers' garrison during the Texas Republic - rediscovered, restored and appended by hand.” The Crockets enlisted architects, local stone masons and craftsmen and an acoustic designer to turn the buildings and grounds into a haven for the arts and heaven for the artists. Works of art abound and there is a spacious retreat cabin to accommodate studio guests and beautiful terraces from which to savor the hill country views. “Dodee and I wanted to create something together that reflects us—our values and passions. We put heart and tenacity and savings into this because we want to be inspired—and for artists and community to be enabled to find and deliver their best gifts.” The seriousness and respect given to the creative spirit is further expressed by the Blue Rock Foundation, whose mission statement indicates that it, “...exists to facilitate individual and collective discovery. Through our publications, performances, and workshops, we affirm that the creative impulse is universal and essential to human fulfillment.” In addition to recordings, performances and workshops, Blue Rock’s fertile environment has brought forth The Blue Rock Review, a series of journals featuring work and essays from renowned visual artists, filmmakers and musicians.
Blue Rock’s rare combination of muse driven programming, technical excellence and organizational savvy uniquely serves dedicated but far-flung audiences. Blue Rock’s live streaming of concerts may serve as a model for other quality venues. Across the country, the best and brightest touring musicians routinely play for audiences of less than one hundred. Those who seek out and attend the shows are frequently people who place a high value on the experience. On any given night there are surely thousands of fans who would treasure the chance to see a favorite artist or trust the taste of their local venue to introduce them to a new artist. Blue Rock charges ten dollars to stream a live concert (seventy-five for a yearly subscription). In a world where we expect everything to be provided free on the internet, this may give some people pause, but considering the quality of every aspect of the experience, this is a very reasonable price. Widespread participation in streaming events may make it easier for musicians to survive financially and fill more seats in venues along the way. It would also make it easier for musicians to stay in touch with fans when circumstances force touring radiuses to shrink. One can only hope that Blue Rock’s uncompromising presentation and enthusiastic nurturing of the arts will garner the attention that it deserves, and perhaps with a little luck (and more hard work) revolutionize the way musicians and audiences connect. —Michael Devlin
As I listen to this album for the first time, I’m reminded of the lovely summer night I saw Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem at a free concert in Huntington, New York. As is the case in concerts of this kind, most of the people in attendance had wandered by because it was there for free in the local park. After a few songs, people were nudging each other and nodding, by the end of the show the band had won a lawn-full of fans. Some Bright Morning has that same kind of instant accessibility and charm. One must suspend one’s disbelief in the possibility of fresh and new music from traditional forms when Daisy Mayhem blends and plays it with musicianship, friendship and the “Drumship.” Rani Arbo’s voice is as pure as a tomboy’s, yet as strong and sure as the mom and veteran musician she is. Her fiddling has the same straightforward charm as her vocals. Rani and Andrew Kinsey have been kindred spirits since their days with Salamander Crossing. If you have ever met Andrew, you will realize that his solid bass playing and baritone singing are somehow not contradicted by his forays with the ukulele. Anand Nayak is a talented singer and songwriter whose guitar work adds an eclectic and sometimes electric edge to the sound. Scott Kessel is the Picard of the Drumship Enterprise, the whimsical but finely timbred collection of objects (a suitcase, cookie tins, etc.) he percusses as persuasively as if he had a normal kit.
The more one listens to this album, the more deeply one appreciates the depth of the material and the talent and chemistry of Daisy Mayhem. Their harmony singing reveals a shared musical vision as the voices perfectly compliment one other. Similarly, their playing has a sparkling quality, arranged to bring out the best in the songs and each other.
Arbo’s own songs highlight the transparent quality of her voice that connects you directly to the emotions of the songs. “Miami Moon,” from the point of view of an old man reminiscing about how he would dance with his sweetheart, is hard to listen to without a tear in your eye. The same guilelessness makes “Build a Bridge” more than the sum of its gorgeous harmonies. “Crossing the Bar,” the Tennyson poem with music by Arbo, originally done with Salamander Crossing, is beautifully phrased and arranged here.
Although Arbo is eponym of the band, everyone gets a chance to shine. Anand Nayak takes the lead on “Reason to Believe,” (a Springsteen song that was begging for the Mayhem/gospel/string band treatment), and the traditional “East Virginia Blues.” Andrew Kinsey takes the lead (and ukulele) on the traditional “I’ll Fly Away.” His “Fire in the Sky” gets a new interpretation, starting with high lonesome harmonies before roaring out in a fuzzy electric haze. Although Scott Kessel seems content to back the others with his tastefully textured percussion, he gets to show off his sticks on the funky blues of “Little Johnny Brown” and “Travelin‘ Shoes.”
Some Bright Morning is a joyful and consummate achievement. —Michael Devlin
A weathered voice, a pulse of a beat, fuzzy electric guitar, growling harmonica, late-night vibe, blues-cool... it’s Ray Bonnevile at his best. Although he is a native of Canada, his diction and verbal rhythm seems to have been born in a deep-southern swamp. Bonneville’s rhythmic playing with muted guitar thumps and the heartbeat pound of his boot obviate the need for a lot of percussion, forming the backbeat for his syncopated vocals. His approach to the guitar frequently finds him with the volume in overdrive with a light touch on the strings, giving his tone an ominous restraint. The songs have a simmering quality, solidly cooking on a fire that just might flare. He reprises “Blond of Mine” with the familiar phrase “fly all over but come back home,” a piece typical of his other songs, hook laden and dealing with complex situations like love and yearning with a catchy, sometimes iconic, well-crafted phrase. There are others who would fit on a bill with Bonneville (Chris Smither comes to mind) but he is truly the original master of his own authentic groove. —Michael Devlin
David Bromberg was part of the Greenwich Village music scene in the mid-sixties, session man for the likes of Bob Dylan, The Eagles, Willie Nelson, Carly Simon and others, and successful solo artist through the seventies. Perhaps his “retirement” in 1980, when he escaped the hectic life of a touring musician to learn to make violins, has kept him fresh. He still sings and plays with the brash confidence of a man who can pull off a breakup line like, “You’re gonna be walking those streets for a long old lonesome time before you find a man like me to curl your toes and roll your eyes back in your head.” Use Me is the result of Bromberg contacting several of his musical acquaintances to ask them to write or choose a song for him, then help him record and produce it. His verve is matched by the talents of the many friends he has tapped for this album. The result is way more than just “been there, doing it again.” Producer/contributors John Hiatt, Levon Helm, Tim O’Brien, Dr. John, Keb’ Mo’, Linda Ronstadt, Vince Gill, Los Lobos, Widespread Panic and the Butcher Brothers all do their own thing, yet the album is cohesive, held together by a glorious full sound, crisp, brilliant playing and Bromberg’s distinct vocals and guitar playing. When someone from the mid-sixties, hits their mid-sixties and still has something to say, it’s a thing to celebrate. When anyone of any age or background puts out an album this fine, it’s a thing of beauty! —Michael Devlin
Joy My Love is a five-song EP of songs that were not used on Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer’s recently released Little Blue Egg, a collection of songs recorded between 1997 and 2002. Although it seems that Tracy is down to the last scraps of unreleased recordings from the duo, these songs are worthy of their place in their catalogue. “Wild Gardenias” features intricate guitar work on a song rich in flowery metaphors, but also with the lyrical twists that mark it as a Dave Carter song. “Hey Diddle Diddle” starts out sounding a bit like “Texas Underground” but it is has the lighthearted mood of a children’s song—post-modern mythic style that is! “You Must Slumber” previously released on the Signature Sounds 10th Anniversary Collection, is a tune written during the Vietnam War, an ominous lullaby sung to a child hearing the sounds of war approaching. “Celia Says” is a children’s song with the tongue-twisting line “Celia says we all sail the sea together.” The last song is a leisurely version of “Merlin’s Lament” with just Dave playing banjo as sweetly as it can be played. Although it would be enough to have a collection of demos from this duo of talent and true genius, Joy My Love is a pleasing set of music by any standard. —Michael Devlin
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 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
Although Lucy Kaplansky has been touring with Red Horse, supporting her 2010 collaboration with John Gorka and Eliza Gilkyson, somehow, five years have gone by since she released her last solo album. Over the Hills and the album before that, The Red Thread are frequently informed by the significant events in Kaplansky’s life, in particular the arrival of her daughter Molly and the aging and passing of her parents. Along with exquisite covers of the music of her contemporaries, this new album continues her narrative of change and emotion.
Reunion features a familiar cast of talented musicians, from long-time producer Ben Wittman, to guitarists Duke Levine and Kevin Barry, and Stephan Crump on bass. The guest musicians include Richard Shindell, John Gorka, Eliza Gilkyson, Buddy Miller and Jonatha Brooke. As expected, production is state-of-the-art and the vocals are every bit as excellent as one would expect from such stellar harmony singers.
Kaplansky, always a master at picking and interpreting the songs of others, makes some memorable choices here. She finds something a little different in her slightly mellower version of Eliza Gilkyson’s “Beauty Way.” “Life is Beautiful” sounds like a song New York resident Kaplansky would have written recently, but it was actually released by Amy Correia in 2000. Woody Guthrie’s “This Morning I Was Born Again” (music by Slaid Cleaves) is a great singers song covered by a great singer’s singer! Her own “Gone Gone Gone” pairs nicely (or should I say nastily) with the Lennon-McCartney “I’m Looking Through You.”
The songs that explore Kaplansky’s familial connections are the soul of this album. Her daughter, Molly is now a preteen, but Kaplansky is still acutely aware of the emotional gulf between her and the woman who gave her up, as expressed in “Mother’s Day,” “Later on I watch her sleep/ And that same picture returns to me/ Six years ago, December day/A mother wraps up her baby and walks away.” The title track evokes Kaplansky’s childhood view of a reunion trip, swimming in Motel 6 pools, eating cookies in her grandmother’s bakery, and noticing the way her father shared his brothers’ “grey green eyes/ And their handsome faces/ With dark shadows behind.” “I’ll See You Again” tells a her parents life story, tied to the Noel Coward song of the same name. Chronologically we follow her parents from their courtship to Lucy’s father’s death as her mother lived on with severe dementia. Emotionally, there are great truths are revealed in the slightest details.
The album closes with “Sleep Well,” a lullaby for her mother. It is just Kaplansky with piano accompaniment by talented jazz singer Laila Biali. This song has one of those little moments that can only happen in a song. Before the last two words of the following lines, there is a little pause that speaks volumes. “You would sit beside our beds/ Watch our breathing as we slept/ Now photos of us next to you/ You can’t see them but...we do.”
It’s that kind of an album, with joys and sorrows giving each other added resonance, with truth coaxed out of emotion-filled moments in a way that is sure to bring tears of recognition to your eyes. Reunion is a rare musical accomplishment and an incredible gift to those of us who now care for or mourn the passing of the “greatest generation.” This is a mature, beautiful album that you will surely cherish and play for good friends. —Michael Devlin
This is a compilation of material from Claudia Schmidt’s Red House Records releases dating from 1987 to 2000. Not knowing that on first listen, I found the music to be all of a piece, sharing a high level of musicianship, songwriting quality and Schmidt’s dynamic and dazzling singing. Her voice sounds like it would need no amplification to be heard at an outdoor festival, yet flexible enough to express everything from a tear to a smile. The songs in this collection range from folk to jazz and blues, always grounded in her uniquely agreeable style. Although the musical styles vary, the production is exquisite. Noted for her 12-string guitar and dulcimer playing, she is joined by brilliant studio musicians and notable guest artists including Beausoleil, The Violent Femmes, Peter Ostroushko, Dean Magraw, Sally Rogers and others. If you have heard Schmidt live or on A Prairie Home Companion or Mountain Stage over the years, you will find it quite a treat to listen to this beautiful compilation. —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
Although Aengus let us know that he now realizes creating and performing music is his life’s calling, he didn’t hint at what took him off the road in the first place. The house was packed to capacity as he launched into his show with “Sandy Grey,” a Slaid Cleaves song he performs as an epic poem. The song was well-known to many in this audience, but it is still stunningly affective to hear it weave its spell on a rapt audience. When he picked-up his guitar, his playing revealed a skill for melodic accompaniment. His lyrics often have the antique turns of phrase of traditional songs, but he has a gift for singing from his heart to ours. His voice is disarmingly soft, yet strong and confident as if singing was his first language. During the show he often joked about how his songs are frequently sad (he has seen his name misspelled as “Anguish Finnan”). Yet it is the songs that deal with moments of tension and intense emotion that have the power to take one to a deeper level of understanding of what it is to be human. And so, we have songs about a troubled young man yearning for his absent father, a girl who dreams of dancing who must become an exotic dancer to earn money to return home, a man who would rather burn his barn than let it go to the highest bidder. In O’Shaughnessy’s Lament, a miner stands by his wife’s grave. As in the other “sad” songs, we can only sense the depth of the sorrow if we have a sense of the hight of the joy, as Aengus sings the following lines a cappella. “Well we courted long and dear while McCarthy was your name/ And when you untied your hair, all the flowers were put to shame/ So the fellas spruced me up for the first time in my life/ How I felt like I was someone when you became my wife.” Even when his songs are not about the darkest and brightest moments of life, they shine with warmth and feeling. “Rollin Home” is rich in detailed emotion from both sides of a trucker’s homeward drive and his wife’s journey through the day of his return.
Mindy Smith performed at the Blue Rock Artist Ranch in Wimberley, Texas. This beautiful studio and venue, between San Antonio and Austin (closer to Austin physically and spiritually), hosts extraordinary live shows ten times a year. (Please click here for the MMReview feature on Blue Rock.) These shows are streamed live from the Texas Room of the ranch, an intimate, high ceilinged room with outstanding acoustics. As one might expect from a recording studio, the audio of the webcast is pristine. Between the camera work and the sound, if you turn down your lights and turn up the volume you feel like you have the best seat in house.
Although Mindy Smith is an accomplished performing artist, she seemed nervous to the point of distraction and at first, the audience didn’t seem to know what to make of her, that is, until she started singing. The transformation was stunning as she began to sing. Her voice is unusual, girlish yet dusky, with a grown-up style and powerful delivery. Where she is apologetic and jittery about the little tuning delays between songs, she is completely at home baring her soul as she sings. In an interview, she said that when she started playing out, she was so insecure about her guitar playing that she would sit with her guitar but sing a cappella. Although she still worries about it, she is more than an adequate player, supporting herself with strong rhythms and attention to detail. I had not heard much of her work before the show, and was immediately impressed with the quality of her songwriting, drawn in by her strong melodies and finely crafted lyrics. “Sober” is written with a directness that makes it immediately accessible, and enough gem-like phrases to make it satisfying. As a Long Island native who moved to Nashville, “Tennessee” acknowledges what makes her call it home, “Your daytime seems like Cash and Patsy Cline/ They may not be what everybody needs/ But they touch my soul/ That's good enough for me.” The show progressed from one well-sung great song to the next and the audience seemed to relax into Smith’s self-deprecating humor as they patiently waited for her to inhabit another one of her fine songs. When one is relatively new to an artist, hearing a familiar cover can really grab one’s attention. “Jolene” has been a big song for Smith, collaborating with Dolly Parton herself on a version of it for a tribute album. Her guitar rhythms and phrasing make the song her own, but it is her ability to sing every word from her very core that will blow you away. The substance and emotional depth of her music makes one want to seek out her recordings to hear these songs again. If I was actually in the Texas Room, I would have bought an album or two! —Michael Devlin