Petunia And The Vipers- Lonesome, Heavy and Lonesome review   Leave a comment

Petunia

Petunia And The Vipers Lonesome, Heavy and Lonesome PetuniaAndTheVipers.com

I’ve never known exactly how to take Petunia And The Vipers.

Are they spoofing country music? was among my initial thoughts when first encountering them several years back. Is it musical theatre, and I just don’t get it?

Nope. They are the real deal. Hell, Phil Alvin has called them “One of the best bands in the world,” and Jonathon Byrd claims, “That’s not a band. It’s another world.”

Byrd nails it with that description. If you haven’t come under the spell of this sextet, prepare yourself. Remember Taco? (Yes, dating myself!) Now imagine that voice fronting Lefty Frizzell’s band, and you are getting close.

Better suggestion, pick up the new album Lonesome, Heavy and Lonesome, the aptly titled third album released under the Petunia And The Vipers imprint, and come under the spell of this fiery, hillbilly-vaudevillian conflagration.

Admittedly, their music can be initially off-putting, and I freely admit I was a late adopter.

No two songs share a similar template, connected by little more than Petunia’s high-spirited falsetto. Western swing sits comfortably along touches of ragtime jazz and blues, with no little bit of the roots of country—Carter Family, Hank Williams, and even Jimmie Rodgers—populating every track, no matter how disparate they appear.  Williams is apparent both musically and lyrically in “Lonesome,” a lap steel-rich number early in the set. Deceptively up-tempo, the “Ugliest, Bitterest, Coldest Dreary Place I’ve Ever Seen” is an obvious favourite, with Petunia hitting the most elevated of notes.

Lonesome qualities abound in “Blindly Wander,” one of several memorable original numbers; cascades of percussion (via Paul Townsend) highlight the desperation the songwriter explores. The origin of “Too Long” might be elaborate Chicago-blues, while “Jeanie Jeanie” and “We Did Not See the Light of Day” have less urbane roots.  For yet another change of pace, on the old-timey “I Don’t Have to Go to High School,” Al Mader’s slam-poetry is set to Petunia’s ramshackle, punky rockabilly beats.

I will freely admit that Petunia and The Vipers is not for everyone. Some may prefer to experience this music a song-at-a-time: across a 12-song album, it can be a bit overwhelming. No matter. I don’t believe there is anyone performing music like this elsewhere: unique and original, then and certainly not cookie-cutter, note-by-number Nashvillian country. Lonesome, Heavy and Lonesome is a spectacular if uneasy traipse through country seldom explored.

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Matt Patershuk- Same As I Ever Have Been review   1 comment

Matt Patershuk Same As I Ever Have Been Black Hen Music

PatershukDon’t accuse Alberta’s Matt Patershuk of resting on laurels well-deserved.

While his previous album I Was So Fond of You was one of the finest country albums of 2016—regardless country of origin—this time out La Glace’s great hope has injected a whole lot of blues’ grit into his songs, especially early in the set. The David Lindley-esque guitar opening of the lead track “Sometimes You’ve Got to Do Bad Things to Do Good” is only the first hint that there’s something different this time out.

One suspects this was a mutual decision by Patershuk and producer Steve Dawson, and while I might prefer a more ‘straight-forward’ country approach, one cannot criticize the execution of this change of direction.

“Memory and the First Law of Thermodynamics” (there is a country title I never expected to type) starts out reminding us a little of “I’m Not Lisa,” but soon shifts deep into metamodern, esoteric Sturgill Simpson territory. “Boreal” makes a turn toward the type of songs this listener most appreciates, ones which remind us that there is beauty all around us, and no little bit of troublesome drama available if we make an effort. It and “Hot Knuckle Blues” reveal, perhaps—and I’m guessing here—a Hoyt Axton influence. “Sparrows” is an elegant and beautiful slice of country, a sentimental piece that slowly reveals a composition rich in emotional detail.

“Cheap Guitar” finds Paterchuk somewhere between the blues and Dave Alvin rock’n’roll (never a bad place to be), as do “Good Luck” and “Gypsy.” “Blank Pages and Lost Wages” cuts a little too close to home for anyone who has sat staring at their fifth cup of coffee going cold. While this might have been presented as a unabashed country song, robust blues flourishes offer a darker finish.

Patershuk experiments with an even deeper register on the title cut, and while it takes a moment to become familiar, by the time he hits the one-minute mark one has adjusted and eases into the comfort provided. The spoken-word recitation “Atlas” is another risk taken, and like the others Patershuk  takes across Same As I Ever Have Been, it works. These decisions serve as reminder of the greatness possible within country music: seldom did Waylon Jennings, Marty Robbins, or Johnny Cash ever record an album where all ten or twelve songs sound like they came from a Music Row algorithm. Patershuk demonstrates he isn’t fearful of taking chances, and if something rubs the listener a bit raw, he is confident enough in his material and presentation that the next song will bring ’em back.

Billed as Songs for Regretful Brutes and Sentimental Drunkards, Matt Patershuk’s Same As I Ever Have Been takes the emerging artist in directions one hadn’t expected. Such is the artist’s journey, following his muse to places unexplored. With a one-hour running time, this is a rich passage with Patershuk guiding the way.

Skinny Dyck & Friends- Twenty One-Nighters review   Leave a comment

Akinny Dyck

Skinny Dyck & Friends Twenty One-Nighters skinnydyck.bandcamp.com

For as long as I can recall, the Alberta roots music environment has been healthy and exciting. From the big-ticket folk festivals in Edmonton and Calgary, and the more regional events held annually in Fort McLeod, Driftpile, East Coulee, and innumerable other sites, to a radio network that supports Alberta roots artists to an incredible level, a roots musician in Alberta seemingly has an entire province at the ready. Still, mainstream success remains rare, and while folks can make a living with their guitars, vans, and songs, breakouts are few—we can count the Corb Lunds and k. d. lang’s on one hand.

Not every artist contained on Ryan Dyck’s visionary Twenty One-Nighters collection is from Alberta, but all are western Canadian and the vast majority call the Wild Rose province home. Recorded adjacent to a Lethbridge pizza place over a series of evenings across nine months of 2016 and 2017, twenty folk and country troubadours answered Skinny Dyck’s call to share their songs, all original and most previously unreleased.

A core band is featured, primarily Skinny Dyck, Tyler Bird, Evan Uschenko, Jon Martin, and Paul Holden on a variety of stringed instruments and drums in various configurations. With twenty different focus acts, the approaches to the music and songs are as varied as the lineups, but each of the seventy minutes the music envelopes the listener with waves of familiarity that are most welcome.

Picking highlights is the chore of a fool. The godfather of southern Alberta roots scene, Lance Loree  kicks things off with “Watching Daddy Dance,” definitely a noteworthy performance, but so is that of Leeroy Stagger and Mariel Buckley (the gorgeous and devastating “New Pair of Shoes”) and Fervor Coulee-mainstay John Wort Hannam (“Acres of Elbow Room,” a preview of the album coming in early spring.)

Sentinels of the pubs, bars, stages, and community halls abound: Tom Phillips, Kent McAlister, Sean Burns, Scott MacLeod, and Dave McCann offer-up terrific numbers, with McAlisters’s “Hall of Shame” and McCann’s “Sticks and Stones” weaving their way into the audio-memory. The legion of Carolyn Mark fans will be interested in “My Love For You,” a two-minute ditty that pulls in ’bout every rural Alberta cliché you would dare drop into a country song.

Many a clever turn of phrase are included on this wide-cut country collection, as are a number of folks we had not previously encountered, although they are certainly known to others—we can’t hear everything! Folks from whom I will be looking for more include Shaela Miller (The Virginian era Neko Case-y sounding “Willow Tree”) Justin Smith (“Seedin’ Time”), and Taylor Ackerman (“Layin’ By Your Side.”) Terrific stuff. Carter Felker offers up an outstanding new song, “I Can’t Believe”—a gem among jewels—and Steven Foord’s “Sweet Alberta” is deserving of airplay.

If there is a single discovery to be found on this album (and there isn’t—unless you were part of the core group putting this set together, I doubt many have heard everyone on this wide-ranging set: there is a lot to discover!) I would suggest it may be George Arsene who delivers a stunning song, “‘Ol #6,” a diner tale that brings to mind the master of the dusty road song, Robert Earl Keen.

Rather than reading my ramblings about this important set capturing the contemporary southern-Alberta roots scene, head over to https://skinnydyck.bandcamp.com/, give a listen, and then pick up a copy there or at one of the upcoming shows Skinny Dyck has planned for November. Original roots music appears live and well in the home province: support it, dammit!

Kim Beggs- Said Little Sparrow review   1 comment

Beggs

Kim Beggs Said Little Sparrow www.KimBeggs.com

Kim Beggs, perhaps Whitehorse’s strongest contribution to the contemporary Canadian folk circuit, has a voice and an outlook like no one else, and she reveals her path of experience at every turn.

That voice. Beggs has a timbre that is folksy, earthy, and woodsy all at once—natural-sounding, of course, but more than that: her voice is as her other gifts, quite simply pure. This comes through on each song of Said Little Sparrow, whether one notes the way she twists the end of lines—”Every second of every hour, planting and picking the prettiest flowers…”—or plainly reveals her heart in the most genuine of manner on “Hurts the Worst” and “Blister.”

The outlook. Listening to Said Little Sparrow, as one did with the previous Blue Bones and Beauty and Breaking, is to know Kim, her family—the Wooded Mix—and her extended circle of compatriots. Their stories are expanded upon within the honestly written notes and personal essays contained in this generously packaged release, but most assuredly are woven into the deeply personal songs. A child assisting her Gran in updating an address book (“They’re all dead and gone, she said, my little one”), common neighbourliness in a frozen community, or a beau presenting his beloved with a freshly dug outhouse hole: these are vignettes into which Beggs invites her listener.

As all great folksingers do, Beggs moves from the personal to the universal with ease. She connects British Columbia’s northern Highway of Tears and its innumerable victims with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” and in doing so touches on her personal connection to the many women who took a final and fateful journey on Highway 16. A forest landscape is referenced when considering ones origin(s) and the meaning of family. In one song, teenaged adventure is viewed through the mirror of time passages, and in another the wise looks toward a future free of the remembered burdens of the past.

Beggs’ songwriting has never been more profound, simultaneously substantial and delicate. Producing herself this time out, she continues to surround herself with the finest of the Canadian roots community including folks like David Baxter (guitars) , Michelle Josef (drums), Brian Kobayakawa (bass, including atmospheric bow-work on the memorable lead track, “Vampire Love Song”), and Oh Susanna (vocals) further sweetened by selective touches of mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and organ.

Another beautiful creation from Kim Beggs. No shortcuts taken in this journey.

 

Gold…In A Way- Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys- Live at Mechanics Hall   Leave a comment

More than 15 years ago, I started a feature in the local bluegrass association’s newsletter that I called “Gold…In A Way.” Each issue I would examine a bluegrass ‘back catalogue’ title that I appreciated. In this way, I looked at albums that either I missed writing about ‘the first time around’ or albums that pre-dated the time I began writing about roots music. These were albums that I thought were important, albums I cared about for some reason. Of course, the only way these albums would ever be ‘gold’ is in their musical value, not in copies sold. This time out, I look at a vintage release from the Father of Bluegrass music, Bill Monroe.

Bill Monroe
Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys- Live at Mechanics Hall (Acoustic Disc) Released 2004

I’ve written it before, and I hope to write it again: Thank goodness a teenaged David Grisman could think of nothing more exciting than to haul his recording machine up and down the east coast of the United States recording bluegrass ham sessions and concerts.

Captured live in November 1963, the Blue Grass Boys in this Worcester, MA set are Del McCoury (IBMA Hall of Fame class of 2011), coming near the end of his brief tenure as Monroe’s lead vocalist and guitar player, Bill Keith (IBMA Hall of Fame 2015), the innovative 5-stringer who gave up his first name for Brad when the authoritative Monroe decried there was to be one ‘Bill’ in the band, and the ever reliable Joe Stuart on fiddle. Bessie Lee Maudlin holds down the bottom.

For those of us who cannot get enough live Monroe (IBMA Hall of Fame 1991), this 40-plus minute set was a welcome addition to our collections when it was released by Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label. Monroe shines on near every number with “Devil’s Dream” being especially fiery on this evening, and “Rawhide” sounding flawless despite Monroe’s assertion otherwise. McCoury takes a few leads, and while his voice had not yet fully acquired its unique qualities, greatness peaks through. What is in evidence, on “Footprints in the Snow” for instance, is McCoury’s ability to carry a song.

The mix doesn’t do justice to Keith’s playing, but Stuart is clearly heard throughout. The vocals are largely duos, with a couple trios and a quartet (“I Saw the Light.”) A pair of numbers featuring Monroe’s daughter Melissa are situated mid-set, and serve only to illustrate the foibles of nepotism; while not unlistenable, one doubts they will ever be considered essential except as part of the historical record.

The heart of the show includes some of Monroe’s most enduring numbers-“Mule Skinner Blues,” “Footprints,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Rawhide,” and “John Henry.” While not surpassing the more familiar studio renditions, these takes are all excellent live performances.

Bea Lilly (IBMA Hall of Fame 2002). of the Lilly Brothers who were features in this ‘package’ show, comes to the stage to sing a duet of “What Would You Give in Exchange” with Monroe. Lilly accepts and meets the challenge of singing Charlie Monroe’s parts. With “Uncle Pen” and “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” the historic (largely because it was recorded) show comes to a close much too soon.

For a recording of some age, the audio quality is simply terrific, and even casual listeners should be able to appreciate the performance. The 24-page booklet is loaded with information, as well as numerous photographs of the 1963 edition of the band.

The liner notes by IBMA Hall of Fame 2014 member Neil Rosenberg are typically insightful and clearly communicated, reading as comfortable reflection of a special time in bluegrass history. The folk boom was just beginning, but much of the scene had not yet discovered bluegrass music; Monroe was, as Rosenberg writes, “on the threshold of recognition that would transform him into an icon of American music.”

This release is heartily recommended. I’ve been listening to it at least annually since its release and never tire of its sparkling liveliness.

Murder Murder- Wicked Lines & Veins review   Leave a comment

Murder Murder

Murder Murder Wicked Lines & Veins

Much of a lifetime ago, folks including The Bad Livers, The Meat Purveyors, and Split Lip Rayfield created rock ‘n’ roll inspired bluegrass for a small community of followers who came of age musically with an appreciation for both Tupelo Honey and Uncle Tupelo. For the most part, these groups remained on the fringes of the wider (narrower?) bluegrass community, never substantially breaking through at the bluegrass festival or industry level.

A couple decades later, and on their third album, Murder Murder throw its hat into the ring from Sudbury, Ontario. This is not anything near traditional or contemporary bluegrass, but don’t let that stop you from looking behind those crates and amps stacked in the dark recesses of the music’s ‘big tent.’ If they hailed from Appalachia, Murder Murder would be renowned for their dark, honest, and vivid portrayals of mountain tales of tragedy. They aren’t playing for us grey hairs, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention.

Setting the majority of their original numbers at the edges of society and deep in rural backwaters, with Wicked Lines & Veins Murder Murder unleash an abundance of misery upon their audience. At turns deliberately profane (“Reesor County Fugitive” ), violently absurd (“I’ve Always Been A Gambler”), and emotionally cutting (“The Last Daughter”), Murder Murder’s narrative tales of desperation and malevolence place them at the fore of whatever alt-grass circuit currently exists. Their characters are ones who would find Fred Eaglesmith’s urbane and uppity, Little Willie and his historical brethren visionary-thinking, fair-minded and considered rapscallions.

To be fair, the tables are turned in “Goodnight, Irene,” (not the Huddie Ledbetter song) and justified comeuppance dispensed in “The Death of Waylon Green” and “Shaking Off The Dust.” Few are the songs that do not find someone ending up on the wrong side of a gun, knife, or bottle of bleach. Playing the traditional bluegrass instruments, along with organ and drums, Murder Murder isn’t like anyone else I’ve heard: if you enjoy The Earl Brothers and The D.Rangers, you should find this group of Canadian independents of interest. Their songwriting is stellar, and the lead vocals are especially appealing, if not smooth and pretty.

With homage paid to the tradition (in “I’ve Always Been a Gambler,” the cuckoo remains a pretty bird that warbles as she flies–elsewhere there’s a hemlock grove, gallows, and betrayal–in ways both apparent and subtle, Murder Murder have crafted an intentionally abrasive interpretation of bluegrass, one where love songs culminate at the end of a rope and a burned-out barroom (“Abilene”) and a child’s revenge in a rich man’s pasture (“Sharecropper’s Son.”)

In no way do Murder Murder sound like the Clinch Mountain Boys, the Steep Canyon Rangers, or Balsam Range. What they do possess is the spirit of originality willing to break through long-established norms and mores to uncover creative freshness within a genre that, without question, benefits from periodic injections of unbridled energy and influence.

Lynn Jackson Follow That Fire review   Leave a comment

Lynn Jackson

Lynn Jackson Follow That Fire Busted Flat Records

Every province, state, city, and area has them—the singer or guitar player that everyone loves and respects, but who strikes a collective shoulder-shrug outside their home range. Pay attention, then.

I had never heard of Lynn Jackson before encountering the previous Songs of Rain, Snow, and Remembering a couple autumns ago. The Ontario-based singer-guitarist is very good, and Follow That Fire is her ninth album over the course of two decades. In 2015, I compared her to the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lynn Miles, and those remain fair, in my way of thinking. Like those songwriters, Jackson gets to the core of the heart fair quickly.

Produced this time by Michael Timmins (a new Cowboy Junkies album would be welcome any time, by the way) Jackson sounds subdued across that album’s three-quarters of an hour, holding her cards close as she shares these song.

Still, there is a hint of playfulness in the way she approaches “Mystery Novels, Short Stories, and Car Songs,” bringing to mind another Timmins sibling, an effect one suspects is deliberately repeated on the closing “No Regrets.” Obviously a narrative songwriter, Jackson’s “Alice” may be the saddest song I’ve heard all year, filled with hope and ache, betrayal and murder. Jayzus, it might not work as a bluegrass song, but I would love to hear Dale Ann Bradley give it a try. As it is, Jackson’s (sounds like) finger-picking gives the song all the atmosphere it needs.

Skydigger Josh Finlayson (bass) and Cowboy Junkie Peter Timmins (drums) form the rhythm section, and combined with Michael Timmins’ production choices, a most compelling and consistent ambiance is created. Andy Maize (The Skydiggers) joins Jackson on “Meet Me In The City,” in a better world a song that would be heard on every country, rock, and pop station across the country. “Meet me in the city for one last go ’round,” she sings. “We’ll take all the time you need” is revised to “I’ll take all the time I need” by song’s end. Another radio-friendly (in an alternate time, perhaps) number is “Tossing & Turning,” a soulful little song about a love that should know better.

Aaron Goldstein’s pedal steel works nicely in concert with Aaron Comeau’s keys (“Night Comes Down,” “Ghosts”) throughout the set. Inspired by the loss of a friend, one of the more introspective numbers is “Random Breakdowns, False Starts, & New Beginnings.” approach.

I know I meant to search out previous Lynn Jackson albums last time I reviewed her. Follow That Fire is a reminder that I need to get onto that project. The rest of the country needs to start paying more attention, too. Damn, she’s good. Great songs, great voice, inspired production: get this one. Fingers crossed: this is Lynn Jackson’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.