I was planning on being productive today; it isn’t every week I have a five-day weekend, certainly, and one should make use of such to accomplish some writing. But, finding myself in the middle of those five days today, someone on Twitter sent out a link to a 2011 Ray Wylie Hubbard concert on YouTube, and well—you should be able to figure out the rest.
One of the things I was going to do today was write about a nifty little 2-song single put out today by Town Mountain, an Asheville, NC bluegrass band that I quite like. I’ve written about the group a couple times. My review of Leave the Bottle was favourable, and in retrospect, too restrained; I think I was feeling that I had written too many 4- star reviews around then, and pulled them back to 3.5. I was less enthusiastic about their live release of last year.
Town Mountain has devoted considerable effort to producing what appears intended as a one-off, a two-song set entitled The Dead Session. Given the strength of this recording, the talented outfit may be well-advised to consider a full album release of Grateful Dead songs.
The two songs chosen for this set are “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” (just as I was typing ‘Mississippi’ there, Ray Wylie introduced his most excellent song “Mississippi Flush,” saying ‘Mississippi’ just as I typed the third ‘s’…which was awesome enough to mention, me thinks) and “Big River.” Yes, I’m still listening to the live show; how can you turn off Ray Wylie Hubbard mid-show?
I’ll pause Ray Wylie to allow myself to get the soaring sounds of Town Mountain back into my head, not that I really need to because I’ve already listened to the single four or five times since receiving in the mail on Monday.
Okay, I lied; didn’t mean to, though. I was going to pause Ray Wylie, but then he started in on another story—this one about prayer —and I couldn’t…so, I pause the writing of this little blurb for another 30 minutes. The world will survive, and Town Mountain will understand. (BTW, Twitter tells me it is his birthday, too.)
At a mere eleven minutes, one wonders why the group bothered pressing up physical copies of this little pair (hard to imagine they’ll make their money back) but one is glad they did—and even more pleased that their publicist sent a copy my way. The cover art is gorgeous (by a noted Dead poster artist Taylor Swope), and almost nothing beats holding music in your hand.
As sung by Jerry Garcia, “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” is an archetypal Dead song—groovy, flowing (meandering, perhaps, depending on one’s perspective), and lyrically woolly. I’m far from a Grateful Dead connoisseur, and wasn’t familiar with the song until I Googled it the other day; shoot me. I have six or eight of their albums on the shelf, and enjoy them when I play them, but I certainly am no expert.
Town Mountain’s version is even more appealing to me—the incorporation of bluegrass elements like 5-string and harmony parts strengthens the song. Bobby Britt’s fiddle playing also brightens “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” and while Garcia’s voice isn’t something one soon forgets, Robert Greer more than holds his own; his distinctive singing is certainly a Town Mountain highlight. Town Mountain stretches out a little here, and I quite like what they’ve done.
The information at the Town Mountain website tells me that The Grateful Dead performed Johnny Cash’s “Big River” almost 400 times. I did not know that. Again, the band does the job on this one. Jesse Langlais’ banjo sets the tone for this rendition, and they keep things concise while providing sufficient instrumental interplay, including pedal steel from Jack Deveraux.
So, for a couple bucks on iTunes you can get a pretty cool listening experience courtesy of Town Mountain. I would certainly suggest the disc, available from the band’s website. Even if you aren’t one for following every dead-end and detour the Dead have sent out, this is a listening journey that I believe is well worth exploring.
Hmmm. I guess I am getting forgetful, but I notice this afternoon that I didn’t link through my review of the Steep Canyon Rangers album Radio here at Fervor Coulee. It was published over at Country Standard Time last month. I likely over-stated my assertion that they are no longer a bluegrass band, at least on this recording, but I truly don’t think Radio is a bluegrass album. And, it isn’t just because they now have a drummer/percussionist as part of their core… not ‘just’ because of that. It is danged good, mind. Just not bluegrass. You may well disagree.
Over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, I’ve posted an update to my 2008 review of The SteelDrivers’ debut album. Gold…In A Way is a semi-regular thing I do where I look back on a favoured bluegrass release. I was prompted to do this one by Chris Stapleton’s absolutely unexpected crowning as the CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year, as well as Best New Artist and Album of the Year. “Traveller” is, no doubt, a great album, and Stapleton is a fabulous singer and songwriter, but no one-not even his pal Nelson at WDVX could have anticipated that he would win three awards last week.
I’m also linking in my review to The SteelDrivers’ latest album, The Muscle Shoals Sessions, published awhile ago at Country Standard Time; I can’t find a link to it here- must have missed that. As well, I reviewed Hammer Down there a couple years back.
Yup, I do love me some SteelDrivers.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Brady Enslen Beautiful Things www. BradyEnslen.com
North America is blessed (maybe overly blessed) with singer-songwriters. While there are no doubt many who should give up the dream and get on with life, in my experience most of those who get to the level of recording an album have more than a little something to offer.
Listen to WDVX’s Blue Plate Special some morning (or, noon if you are in the eastern time zone) to hear what I mean. Almost daily, they feature an artist I’ve never heard before, and most always I hear something that makes me say, “Yup, he’s (or she’s) good,” or “Now, that’s a fine line.”
Not every singer-songwriter I hear is going to become the next Clark (Guy, Jay, or Brandy), Erelli, Peters, Kane or Welch, but more often than not they can offer insight into the life we find ourselves living.
In Alberta, there are dozens upon dozens of singer-songwriters (fools on stools, I think some have been affectionately dubbed) sharing their stories, witticisms, and musicality with anyone who’ll listen: Buckley, Wort Hannam, Dunn, Moreau, Stack, Coffey, Hus, Lund, Williams, Hawley, Pineo, Patershuk, Johnson, Albert, Nolan, Shore, McDonald, Vickers, McCann, Stagger, Gates, Wylie, Tyson, Phillips, Masters, Bourne, Purves-Smith, Davis, St. John…the cross-generational list goes on and on.
Add Brady Enslen to the list.
“I best be on my way…to better things…before the light goes away…and I lose my way” is the chorus that closes Beautiful Things, and it is a fitting coda.
From Drumheller, Enslen doesn’t get overly fancy on his debut release Beautiful Things. Produced by Winnipeg’s Scott Nolan (himself no slouch in the singer-songwriter department) this album features a core band interpreting Enslen’s songs in a manner that maintains focus on the singer and his songs.
Enslen and Nolan keep things relatively simple. The songs come in at under five minutes, and the musicians—including Matt Filopoulos (lead guitar,) Eric Lemoine (pedal steel,) Ashley Au (bass,) and Dan Bertnick (drums)—are unobtrusive, colouring the songs with just enough sound to accentuate Enslen’s insights.
Enslen’s songs are filled with longing and place, usually simultaneously. “Drive,” the album’s lead track, captures this theme with ideally: “We’ll drive until we can’t drive anymore,” the song closes after dreamlike escape over prairie, through mountains and trees, to the ocean’s edge. “I went looking for a place to hide,” Enslen sings in “Lonesome Winds,” and one senses that he may still be seeking shelter. Certainly, nothing is resolved by the time a mother abandons her children to survive on their own for the summer (“No Whiskey For Mama.”)
Like many, Enslen walks that fine line between having lived his songs and possessing the power to create believable, relatable scenarios. “It’s like you get to the end of a page, and you don’t know how you got there,” he sings. We can relate. We’ve attempted to imagine the land without barbed wire fences, been lost at night, hearing the coyotes’ serenade, and appreciated our ‘beautiful thing,’ aware that we are unworthy.
Brady Enslen has created a brilliant disc, one that is entirely enjoyable on its own merits, but one that also hints at greatness to follow. Folk, country, Americana, singer-songwriter…however label it, Beautiful Things is a success.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Songs of Rain, Snow, & Remembering
Busted Flat Records
I hate coming late to the game, but such is the situation as I first encountered Lynn Jackson this past month.
The Kitchener, ON singer and songwriter is on album number eight with Songs of Rain, Snow, & Remembering and I don’t think I’ve previously heard of her. Given the clarity of her voice and the strength of her material, one would hope I would have remembered had I encountered her music.
Songs of Rain, Snow, & Remembering is (largely) an acoustic album, produced by Norman Blake. Admittedly, I got quite excited when I saw Blake’s name in the album notes, having long been an appreciator of the old-time folk instrumentalist. Who knew Norman Blake is also a Scottish-transplant to Canada most famous as part of Teenage Fanclub, a band I may have heard of without ever having heard?
Well, other than most of the world excepting me?
Lynn Jackson reminds me a lot of Mary-Chapin Carpenter, and yes the hyphen is purposely included as, long ago, that is how I came to know MCC, before the stadiums and theatres, back when she was recording Hometown Girl and State of the Heart and still had a hyphen in her given name. That is the MCC of which Jackson reminds me, along with Cheryl Wheeler, Lynn Miles, and Shari Ulrich.
Jackson writes songs that sound very personal while embracing universal appeal and circumstance. That I am a 50+ white male that can’t play the same chord twice in a row matters not—I can relate to the stories Jackson tells, the emotions she conveys, the longing she communicates. Confessional without discomfort. “Riding Out the Storm” and “Water & Glass” are quite remarkable performances. The autumnal nature of the album is apparent—change, passing our prime, closing of chapters—and are brought to the fore on songs including “Winter Sun,” “Next Best Thing,” and “Long Winter.” Townes Van Zandt’s “Rake” is another highlight.
I don’t like the fret noise apparent on “Ribbons”; to me, such scrapes sound messy and irritating, distracting from the song’s moment. A shame that, as the songwriting apparent here is quite striking.
Folk? Perhaps that is the best label. File under: Good.
Lead Belly’s Gold: Live at the Sunset and More
Stony Plain Records
I been a gambler, I been a rambler,
I been called a low-down roustabout,
Been a convict man down in Sugar Land,
An’ I know what a chain gang’s all about…
On his self-penned song that closes Lead Belly’s Gold, Eric Bibb creates Huddie Ledbetter’s testimony of experience. The refrain, “I been swimmin’ in a river of songs ever since I was born,” captures the magnitude of Lead Belly’s repertoire and influence, songs traditional, borrowed, and his own, a broad range of presentations styles, and—of course—a tremendous and lasting effect on the blues, folk, and popular music long after his passing.
“Swimmin’ in a River of Songs” might have made a more accurate title for this album—mostly live, but augmented with five studio tracks. Bibb, long a favorite with modern roots listeners—if you’ve missed him, you’re well advised to Get Onboard and explore his many recordings, two of which seldom sound the same, so broad has his palate been: in addition to Get Onboard, I am partial to his set with Habib Koitè, his collaboration with his father Leon honouring the impact of Paul Robeson, and Blues, Ballads, and Work Songs—has outdone himself on this generous recording.
Working with a French harmonica player with whom I was not previously familiar, Jean-Jacques Milteau, and a tasteful drummer-bass rhythm section, and background vocalists including Big Daddy Wilson, Bibb and Milteau present Lead Belly’s music not as archival elements of a previous generation, but as vibrant, compelling songs that are not only timeless, but relevant to contemporary events (connections to modern migrants and refugees, civil unrest and distress, and the desire for dignity are apparent) and vital and informative to an appreciation of the intertwined folk and blues traditions.
Bibb’s voice is so smooth and warm—like most of us, he hasn’t spent time on a chain gang in Louisiana—it may take a moment for the uninitiated to ‘buy into’ his interpretation of songs of hardship. But, as Bibb explains within the album’s extensive, informative, and appreciated notes, Lead Belly’s voice and music always contained optimism and light. It is this element of the blues, of folk, that Bibb holds to most securely.
I been a rover, been a chauffeur,
But truly, I’m a troubadour,
I got the chance to play in Paris, France
An’ I seen things I never seen before…
Depending on experience, we’ve heard these songs dozens or hundreds of times—“The House of the Rising Sun,” “Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line,” “Grey Goose”—and maybe we’ve heard them performed in bigger productions, and perhaps even under more intimate circumstances. However one has come to these songs, I don’t think we’ve heard them exactly like this. Bibb’s interpretations are so confident and grounded that these may become the versions I hear in my head when contemplating the history and weight of these songs.
I’m no fan of harp players—I just don’t get it, just like I don’t get Dancing with the Stars, Pinterest, and surf music—but Milteau’s playing throughout this album is completely enjoyable. Would I like the album just as much without it? Yup, but this is the sound Bibb and his collaborators desired, so I’ll go along with it. I do think “Bring A Little Water, Sylvie” is stronger for Milteau’s contributions.
While the album closer “Swimmin’ in a River of Songs” is a stunning imagining of Lead Belly’s viewpoint, it isn’t the only song on which Bibb and Milteau delve into his persona. “When I Get to Dallas” and “Chauffeur Blues” also enlighten listeners to Lead Belly’s experiences in segregated America, much as “Bourgeois Blues,” “On A Monday,” and “Pick a Bale of Cotton”—all included here—did nearly a century ago.
Recorded in a small club in France, and featuring a Canadian connection not only through the venerable Stony Plain Records label but also with the significant contribution of Michael Jerome Browne to the closing track, Lead Belly’s Gold is a blues-folk album of significance. Reaching out to the past, Bibb and Milteau illuminate it to reveal shadows within the present.
When you’re long gone, they’ll sing your songs,
Gypsy woman tol’ me in Nineteen an’ ten
You’ll be a big name, destined for fame,
You’ll do more livin’ than ten men.
If you are not familiar with Ewan MacColl, you really owe it to yourself to do some Google searching. He was a terrific songwriter and a central figure-some may argue ‘the’ central figure-in the revival of the British folk music tradition. He was also a big of a cad, I’ve read, but since few of us are ideal human beings, let’s just enjoy the music. Compass Records recently released (in North America) Joy of Living, a two-disc set of MacColl songs recorded by the crème of modern British folk. My review is up at Lonesome Road Review. It is fair brilliant, and because of the album I discovered my latest favourite band, Bombay Bicycle Club.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald