Trevor Alguire Perish in the Light
For those who have been paying attention, and I have admittedly not paid enough, Trevor Alguire has carved out a little niche for himself on the Canadian singer-songwriter circuit. His song “Thirty Year Run” was a realistic portrayal of life, all the more impressive for its wisdom beyond years, “I’m Going Crazy (Out of Your Mind)” was a country hit waiting for radio, and “Cold Words” plumbed emotional depths as starkly as John Hiatt often does.
On Perish in the Light Alguire again looks into the darkness of relationships and the vitality of lives, exploring the inner-most thoughts of folks brave enough to ponder their circumstance. There is an echo of Billy Bragg in his voice (“The Ghost of Him,” “I’ll Be Who I Am,”) which is really strange as I also hear Corb Lund coming through in places (“Long Way Home,” “Flash Flood.”)
The cinematic “My Sweet Rosetta” sketches an everlasting love, and features the strong vocal presence of Catherine MacLellan and the wonderfully poetic image of “my bullet-proof sweater.” Like Mark Erelli, Alguire sketches life’s complexities of turmoil and wonder in just a few lines, coalescing a lifetime of challenge, doubt, and absurdity into a relatable couplet.
“I’d rather hold her memory tight than waste my days with you,” from “Out of Sight Out of Mind” doesn’t even require a second line to nail things down, placing punctuation on enduring love. Man, that is one excellent song. “Wasting My Time With You” explores the opposite, cutting a relationship to the quick. “Long Way Home” is a song of promise and assurance. “If I Had Stayed in School” is a songwriter’s manifesto.
Production choices deserve mention as instruments are placed to the front of the mix, emphasizing the collaborative nature of the recording. Beautifully balanced, Alguire’s vocals rise through and above in these brilliant little songs; give a listen to the first minute of “My Sweet Rosetta” to hear an audio visionary to full effect. Bob Egan contributes pedal steel with Miranda Mulholland’s fiddle serving as additional connection to the country sound.
Perish in the Light is a great album, one I will be nominating for the Polaris Prize. It won’t win, but it deserves a conversation.
Always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Support your local roots musicians.
Midwest Side Stories
First impression: this guy can sing.
You wouldn’t think such a statement should warrant significant mention in a review of a new album, and maybe it doesn’t. Given my experiences the last (many) years listening to independent artists of the Americana roots variety, I feel it does because I hear a lot of emerging (and established) artists and damn it, some of them can’t.
They can mumble. They can emote. They can speak melodically with some rhythm, even. And many pull it off even with less of a voice than I might have.
Chicago Farmer, despite the moniker, can flippin’ sing. He has a style that reminds me of the country/folk pop singers of the early 70s—the R. Dean Taylors, John Denvers, and Ray Matericks of the day. Earnest. Bold. Honest.
Cody Diekhoff (nothing wrong with that name—wish he used it! For those who don’t know, I have a bit of an aversion to [the increasing number of] singers/duos who go under a name other than that which their mother gave ’em…fully realizing my mom never called me Fervor Coulee) has been releasing music for more than a decade, and by my count I have six albums to ‘catch up on’ having now been exposed to his straightforward, insightful, and darned groovy interpretation of modern life and vision. Not as cleverly obvious as John Prine, Diekhoff most reminds me of the former postman who happens to share similar small(er) town Illinois roots.
Diekhoff—okay, Chicago Farmer doesn’t set out to do anything fancy on Midwest Side Stories. He has insight into the experiences and internal dialogues of contemporary working class folks, and has the artistic ability to convert these into songs of substance and interest. “Skateboard Song” touches on a whole lot of stuff—youthful disenchantment, small-mindedness, finger-pointing, and police harassment, just to start—over a hard-beaten melody that would do both Weezer and Dan Bern proud.
“Two Sides of the Story” similarly looks at community, the push/pull pride/hate we have with our small town upbringings—we may not like ourselves, but you damn well better not put us down, especially if you live on the other side of town! “Umbrella” delves into the troubadour’s lot, “these songs and stories began unfolding like an umbrella in the rain” balancing melancholy and attempts toward local fame with a compulsion to connect with a single person while remaining true.
Chicago Farmer’s mid-western insights do not limit these songs: they appeal whether you are rural or urban, upstate or down, blue- or white- collar, Canadian or American. “Rocco N’ Susie” are our neighbours, the ones we don’t really know, but are more like us than we care to admit—a couple pay cheques away from foreclosure, a few months from desolation, several bad decisions from remand. The gradual journey from independence to dependence is identified in “Farms & Factories,” suspicion thrives in “Revolving Door,” and the night shift margins are explored on “9 pm to 5.”
Brian Henneman’s approach to songwriting comes to mind mid-set. Only late in the album deos Chicago Farmer rock as much as do The Bottle Rockets, but there are more commonalities in subject manner and tone than not. One can imagine Chicago Farmer finding inspiration through a cracked windshield, identifying vigour where others might encounter pathos. The full band of folks I’ve never heard of—Ernie Hendrickson, Darren Garvey, Matt Ulery, and many more—create a substantial background for Chicago Farmer, never infringing on his words while providing a weighty dynamic for these songs.
The set closes with an up tempo—almost bombastic—interpretation of John Hartford’s anthem to survival, “I’m Still Here.” It is an ideal song to close a set that has at its heart the theme of the daily grind: get up, work your ass off, enjoy a bit of the benefit of your labour, and repeat tomorrow, next month, and for the next forty years.
Chicago Farmer comes with a Todd Snider seal of approval. That’s cool. But you’ll like him just for being himself and delivering music that resonates no matter the circumstance.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. I appreciate it, and hope you will support roots music in all its forms.
Jenny Whiteley The Original Jenny Whiteley Black Hen Music
I first encountered Ontario’s Jenny Whiteley as a member of Heartbreak Hill, a bluegrass band featuring Dottie Cormier, Christopher Quinn, Victor Bateman, and Danny Whiteley. I don’t recall too much about their performance at that Blueberry Bluegrass fest appearance outside the impact of a single Whiteley song: “John Tyrone” remains one of the finest bluegrass songs that have come out of Canada, and from the first time I heard the song I knew Whiteley was someone I wanted to learn more about.
I didn’t get the opportunity at the time, but months later Whiteley found me at Wintergrass and offered me a copy of her debut self-titled album. That independently released disc displayed Whiteley’s remarkable ability for creating characters within a few well-crafted lines, and earned comparison to Emmylou Harris’ recent Red Dirt Girl. Whiteley was revealed as a major talent, and was rewarded with the first of two Juno Awards for best solo roots/traditional recording. With sultry vocal sophistication, Whiteley has previously released four albums (Hopetown, Dear, and Forgive or Forget followed the debut, with Hopetown also picking up a Juno) filled with love, loss, and regret.
In 2010, I wrote of Forgive or Forget that is was more universally palatable than her rootsy initial offering, but one missed the narrative intensity and youthful fragility of songs such as “Gloria” and “Train Goin’ West.” As one who frequently better enjoys musicians early, developing years than their fully-realized artistic selves (Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Jack Ingram, Dolly Parton, and many others fit into that frame) while still appreciating what they do, The Original Jenny Whiteley appears designed expressly for me.
On this recording, Whiteley seemingly satisfies a desire to more fully explore the music that provided the foundation for her development—old-time folk sounds that have existed and thrived for generations. She even goes back to a song previously recorded on Dear, “Banjo Girl.” A recognition of her rich and diverse Americana/Canadiana upbringing within the venerable Whiteley clan, this fifth recording is a rootsy masterpiece. In a lesser artist’s hands such a multi-dimensional homage might sound disjointed; The Original Jenny Whiteley is united in its eccentric melding of the rich traditional and roots tapestry—folk, jugband, bluegrass, early jazz and ragtime, Francophone, Dylan, and the blues.
Singing “Groundhog” accompanied by producer Sam Allison’s old-time banjo and Teillard Frost’s percussion (harp, bones, etc.,) Whiteley isn’t striving for cultural appropriation or cornpone authenticity. Rather, she is singing of rural experiences that are as genuine as the acoustic sounds comprising the song. For “Stealin’ Stealin'” Whiteley goes back to the Memphis Jug Band, but doesn’t stay there infusing the timeless tune with nine decades of patina via The Grateful Dead, Taj Mahal, and her own danged self.
Whiteley explores the school of hard knocks in “Higher Learning” while acknowledging (via Chris Coole) the thousands of fools on stools eking out a living (of sorts) playing for “$100” a night. “In the Pines” (Bill Monroe, not Huddie Ledbetter or Nirvana) provides a welcome old-time (not bluegrass) connection to Heartbreak Hill, while The Incredible String Band’s “Log Cabin in the Sky” (perhaps) serves as a connection to the generation of players surrounding father Chris and his brother Ken.
The Original Jenny Whiteley is beautiful. By going to her past and rooting around in her trunk of influences, Jenny Whiteley has found the inspiration to create an uncompromising, uncluttered representation of what (mostly) acoustic folk music is all about. In this case, you can judge an album by its cover, a lovely, unadorned sketch by Stewart Jones.
As she sings in “Things Are Coming My Way”—”O me, How good I feel.” After spending thirty minutes listening to this album, you will be singing the same. It is early, of course, but I can’t see a way this album doesn’t make my Polaris Music Prize ballot.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. I hope you are inspired to purchase the music of the artists featured because they deserve it!
Blue Highway Original Traditional Rounder Records
For more than twenty years, listeners have been privileged every couple years to encounter a new album from Blue Highway.
Original Traditional, their eleventh and first since Dobroist Rob Ickes departed, continues their most recent blueprint: original music written or co-written by band members along with a single traditional song. The album’s title alludes to the group’s tendency to bridge the generations of bluegrass through recognition and reverence for the traditions of the music while ensuring a contemporary, original perspective is always present.
With three formidable lead vocalists and key songwriters—Tim Stafford (guitar,) Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle, guitar,) and Wayne Taylor (bass)— along with Jason Burleson’s alternately aggressive and pensive, propulsive and sympathetic banjo presence (his tune “Alexander’s Run” is a highlight of the recording) and an instrumental lineup as strong as has ever been staged, Blue Highway is one of the top bands in the business.
Joining the group for this recording is the youthful Gaven Largent, briefly of Michael Cleveland’s Flamekeeper and a player who doesn’t ease his way into the Blue Highway sound, confidently laying out his runs on mid-set numbers including the love-gone-wrong piece “What You Wanted” and the vengeful murder ballad “The Story of My Life.”
“Don’t Weep For Me”—essentially “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” meets “Echo Mountain” minus the dog—is a strong lead song. The rest of the 38 minute album reveals the accustomed cast of bluegrass fellows who drink too much (“Water From the Stone,”) hold onto childhood trauma too long (“The Story of My Life,”) and lose a good woman’s love because of it all (“If Lonesome Don’t Kill Me.”)
Still, Blue Highway isn’t a band favouring one-dimensional songs, and none of those songs mentioned exist without shades of gray. In Shawn Lane and Gerald Ellenburg’s album closing number, Blue Highway revisit the good ole days at “The Top of the Ridge” while writing what sounds like either an elegy or (in darker eyes) a note of suicide. “She Ain’t Worth It,” in hands other than Tim Stafford and Steve Gulley, might have been just another song of fateful revenge; their protagonist thinks a little longer about his predicament—rather than grabbing his .44, he sits and “bathe(s) in the afterglow.”
“She Ain’t Worth It” swings more than a little, and features Largent to nice effect. Similarly, “Last Time I’ll Ever Leave This Town” provides the instrumentalists room to showcase their offerings. “Water From the Stone” has a pleasing and inspirational gospel quartet arrangement, while the a cappella treatment of “Hallelujah” is just showing off and seems a fine message to the IBMA: Why exactly aren’t we named Vocal Group of the Year annually?
I am sure I am not the only amateur fact-checker who has gone on extended forays to learn the true life blues behind particular folk and bluegrass numbers. Many (many) years ago, one of the first I did this with was “Tom Dooley,” the standard popularized by Grayson & Whitter, The Kingston Trio, Doc Watson, and hundreds of others. I remember scouring the local libraries for ‘facts’ related to the story of Tom Dula and Laura Foster.
On the Legacy recording made with David Holt, Watson suggested his grandmother knew something about the tale, and that intrigued me even more, as did reading Sharyn McCrumb’s excellent The Ballad of Tom Dooley. My interest was therefore piqued to read the song title “Wilkes County Clay” (the locale of those post-Civil War events) and even more thrilled as the song began with, “In North Carolina, in the County of Wilkes, there’s a tale of deception, murder, and guilt. I’ll spare no compassion, the truth I will tell, Let God alone judge me, this side of hell.” From those words, one knew where Tim Stafford and songwriting partner Bobby Starnes were going.
“Wilkes County Clay” is a mournful song, with Lane’s fiddle colouring the song much as one imagines the instrument did Dula’s final moments. While the narrator’s identify isn’t clear, the song is an agreeable telling of the tale, taking the Grayson-path that other accounts discount. The lyrical choices made (“She hid like a panther in the black of the night, And killed Laura Foster with a bone handle knife”) raises this above typical bluegrass fare.
Original Traditional is another outstanding bluegrass album from Blue Highway. They make it seem easy: forced listening to the number of less-than-adequate bluegrass albums available proves that it isn’t. Blue Highway is a great band, one that has been contributing fresh insight into the bluegrass spectrum for more than two decades. That they continue to rise to the level they do, never taking the easy way, never delivering less than stellar material, is testament to the importance they place on their legacy.
Excellent cover, presumably by Bobby Starnes, too!
Thank you for taking the time to seek out Fervor Coulee. I appreciate that there are lots of places to get roots information and opinion; I’m glad I’m one of them. Donald
Kristin Scott Benson recently released a very fine bluegrass album, and I was asked to write about it for Country Standard Time. I have.
But, prior to being asked to do that, I had written a blog entry over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass which looked at the three KSB albums as well as instrumental bluegrass albums in general. It rambles a bit, but there may be two of three salient ideas included.
Thanks to the folks at Mountain Home and all other labels and independent artists and publicists who show faith in my by getting fresh roots music into my ears.
Still catching up on summer…
Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters
Stony Plain Records www.RonnieEarl.com
Ronnie Earl has been around. Twenty-plus albums, the last ten on Canada’s venerable Stony Plain Records, has found the master guitarist one of the most revered guitarists producing the blues. At times a little jazzy, often late-night right, Earl and the Broadcasters has consistently released albums of high quality. With Maxwell Street, Earl pays tribute to a past member of the Broadcasters David Maxwell as well as Chicago’s Maxwell Street. As always, this is a largely instrumental collection of evocative music that draws in the listener with exquisite timing and interplay. Soulful vocalist Diane Blue appears—as she has in recent recordings—breaking things up with her sensitive offerings on a few numbers including the album closing “As The Years Go Passing By.” A near-12 minute reading of Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble” is a workout. Key cuts: those mentioned as well as “(I’ve Got to Use My) Imagination” and “Elegy for a Bluesman.”
Still catching up on summer…
Duke Robillard & His All-Star Combo
Blues Full Circle
Stony Plain Records www.DukeRobillard.com
It is a fool’s errand attempting to enumerate Duke Robillard’s albums: his Wikipedia page lists over fifty projects of which he has been a part, some forty of which carry his name and over twenty with Stony Plain.
Coming off the award-winning The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard, the quartet (bass, keys, drums, guitar) returned to the studio to layout some fiery electric jams only to be curtailed by Robillard’s rotator cuff surgery and rehabilitation. Among those initial tracks, “Mourning Dove” and “I Got the Feelin’ That You’re Foolin'” offer different shades of blues heartache, while “Blues for Eddie Jones” achingly traces the blues journey of Guitar Slim. Replete with flights of instrumental fancy, the All-Star Combo prove themselves to be a tight posse, with Robillard’s growly vocals providing character and depth. Guests include Kelley Hunt who provides additional swing on her composition, “The Mood Room.” The highlight of this robust, multi-dimensional examination of the blues is six and a half minute instrumental “Shufflin’ and Scufflin'” featuring blistering interplay between Robillard and Jimmie Vaughn over an epic bed of organ from Bruce Bears with Doug James painting waves of baritone sax.
Blues Full Circle gives credibility to the adage that one is born to the blues: Duke Robillard continues to create music that draws folks toward this realization.