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High Fidelity- Hills and Home review   Leave a comment

Hills and Home

High Fidelity Hills and Home Rebel Records

Every decade or so, Rebel Records signs a performer with limited national presence and assists them in ascending the bluegrass ladder: Steep Canyon Rangers; Chris Jones; Lonesome River Band; Lost & Found; Cliff Waldron…

This time out, that band is High Fidelity.

High Fidelity’s second album, Hills and Home (named for the John Duffey composition originally recorded by the Country Gentlemen for Starday in 1959, and included here) serves as an appealing and versatile introduction to this rather youthful quintet’s energetic, foundationally strong, and vocal-focused representation of contemporary bluegrass.  Hills and Home affirms the promise of their sparking, self-titled debut of 2016.

Built around the complementary vocal duo of Corrina Rose Logston Stephens (fiddle) and Jeremy Stephens (guitar and banjo), High Fidelity also features Kurt Stephenson (banjo and guitar), Daniel Amick (mandolin and guitar), and Vickie Vaughn (URB), who some will recall from her self-named group and EP. The group most obviously presents bluegrass that captures the old-time sounds of bluegrass influenced by Reno & Smiley, with shades of the Louvins in some of their arrangement choices and production approaches. Their focus is capturing a vintage sound is apparent throughout the album’s fourteen songs, perhaps never so strongly as on “Gotta Get You Near Me Blues,” a Buddy Holly song by way of Bob Montgomery, which shines with a Louvin aesthetic.

“I’ve Changed My Mind” is a master course in vocal harmony with the Stephens spouses seamlessly exchanging leads on the chorus. That the group fully accepts the message of this redemption song is apparent not only in their masterful delivery, but in the fact that half the songs contain messages of faith. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is featured with a rarely encountered verse included.

High Fidelity’s duo and trio singing is pleasingly presented on songs including “I Will Always Be Waiting For You,” “The Leaf of Love,” and the very strong “My Saviour’s Train.” Jeremy Stephens has a strong, confident voice, and Corrina Rose is a perfect foil with a sharpness in her delivery that is atypical and so terribly welcome. She doesn’t have a prototypical ‘pretty’ (and consequently, bland) bluegrass voice; rather, she could be the high harmony singer on a ‘fifties radio show recording, cutting through the gloom and distance from a far-away station. As a result, her voice is memorable and even beautiful.

High Fidelity’s versatility is revealed in their approach to these (mostly) seldom encountered songs. Charlie Monroe’s 60’s song “My Mother’s White Rose” is given an ‘old-school’ performance that evokes images of a (seemingly) less complicated time. Jim & Jesse’s “I Will Always Be Waiting For You” receives similar treatment, while “Maple On The Hill” is given a bit of juice to get it over the rise. “Grey Eagle” not only gives Logston Stephens a chance to cut loose, the entire group digs in for an elaborate breakdown of distinction.

Hills and Home is an exciting bluegrass release from a group that creates the kind of bluegrass too seldom heard today. Like the Johnson Mountain Boys and Longview before them, High Fidelity is bringing bluegrass music’s rich history forward to today’s audience.

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Rory Block- A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith review   Leave a comment

Rory Block

Rory Block A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith Stony Plain Records

What was the name of the Maria Muldaur album a decade or so ago? Naughty, Bawdy, & Blue, that’s it.

That would also work for this new set from Rory Block, the latest in her ongoing mission tracing the historical importance and continuing influence of the blues masters.

While the previous six volumes of her Mentor Series honoured “founding fathers of the blues” she encountered as a teenager, Block has now turned her vision to the ladies with the “Power Women of the Blues.” No better singer to feature on the initial set than Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues.

This is how I like my blues. Entirely acoustic with multi-tracked accompaniment (Block also offers unconventional percussion from hat boxes, guitar bongos, plastic tubs, and wooden spoons to go along with her gorgeous, masterful guitar playing) allowing the character of the music to reverberate internally. Stripped of any finery, we are left with the essentials: guitar, bass, voice, and fervent passion.

There is no shortage of double entendre across these ten songs including “Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” “Do Your Duty,” and “Kitchen Man.” Other songs offer additional vital relationship insight. “Black Mountain Blues” suggests a razor and a gun, while advising “the bullet will get you if you start your dodging too late.” Little highbrow here with “Gimme a Pigfoot and A Bottle of Beer” and an extended and groovy “Empty Bed Blues” receiving relaxed but riveting, powerful performances. Within “Empty Bed Blues,” Block reveals the ache and hunger of the protagonist in every note she sings.

As appealing as those songs are, and Block’s execution is stellar, I find greater interest in songs like “Weeping Willow Blues” and “I’m Down In The Dumps.” While there is much to dissect within the ‘naughty, bawdy, and blue’ songs—culturally, socially, even politically—when Block presents a more nuanced song, she is at her strongest. Of course, no one advocates wrapping chains around oneself and jumping into the river over the loss of a man, but Block plums the emotional depths of these songs so effectively they sound inspirational. Naturally, Block’s “On Revival Day” is uplifting and heartening.

Bessie Smith was a prolific artist, and volumes have been written of her influence on twentieth century music. That continues today with prominent performers like Rory Block (and Bonnie Raitt and Muldaur) doing their duty in keeping this vibrant music relevant ninety-five years after Smith’s first recording session.

 

Gretchen Peters- Dancing With The Beast review   1 comment

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Gretchen Peters Dancing With the Beast Scarlet Letter Records

I’m a fan of Gretchen Peters, and have been from the first time I heard “On A Bus To St. Cloud” more than two decades ago. Not an ardent enthusiast as I am for others—Del McCoury, Steve Forbert, Kirsty MacColl, The Go-Go’s—perhaps, where I keep/kept up on every twist and turn of their careers and purchased everything I could get my hands on, but a devotee nonetheless. I lost track around when Halcyon was released, but started catching up again with the Tom Russell album several years ago. I ordered my copy of Dancing With The Beast on the strength of her previous Blackbirds and a few minutes of listening online. Like contemporaries Eliza Gilkyson and Darrell Scott, Peters has never made an album I didn’t thoroughly enjoy.

Upon first listen yesterday, I thought “Man, these first two songs are great…they alone make the album a worthwhile purchase.” (I had unsuccessfully searched the city stores for a copy before succumbing to the ease that is Amazon.) And then songs three, four, and five played and I knew Peters had created a modern masterpiece of folk-tinged Americana. Four complete plays within 15 hours has done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm.

While Peters hasn’t done a lot of co-writing historically, like Guy Clark did she sees the benefit of collaboration within established relationships. Working up with “Blackbirds” co-writer Ben Glover for a few songs here, Peters continually raises her game crafting engaging and poetic songs of visionary substance.

Teaming with Matraca Berg (another long-time Fervor Coulee fave) and Glover for “Arguing With Ghosts,” this dark song could be about the descent toward dementia, but it could also be about depression, isolation, or the frustration many feel with a world that is moving too quickly. It is the universality of the images that impacts the listener across this song of wistful reflection. “I get lost in my home town, since they tore the drive-in down”—opens the song (and album)–before smacking it home with the honest truth of “The years go by like days; sometimes the days go by like years, and I don’t know which one I hate the most.”

The weariness of the troubadour’s road is captured without sentimentality or rancour in “The Show,” and I was so enamoured with the sound of this song I got out the specs to read the near-indistinct musician credits (white on light pink!) to again find Will Kimbrough’s name! Is there anything thing this guy doesn’t play on? Like a lucky penny, he is. Scanning the remaining notes, I see him listed on most of the other tracks, along with Barry Walsh (piano, Hammond B3), naturally, Dave Roe (bass), and Jerry Douglas (Dobro) on a couple.

The title track is more pointedly about the grip of the black dog, while “Lowlands” and “Disappearing Act” both explore the theme of seclusion.

The loneliness of “Disappearing Act” morphs into a “dark cocoon,” a result of years living with diminishing returns: “People leave and they don’t come back, life is a disappearing act” Peters sings in her perfectly downy voice, revealing that “you can travel the world, you can sail the seas…still you end up cryin’ at your kitchen sink.” Within an album full of artful and challenging lyrics, I think my favourite line on the album may be “We had 40 good years, then 10 more!”

“Lowlands” is the place Peters finds herself inhabiting—”making do” with her friends—a place where “a little light gets through.”  Coloured by current circumstances in her country, Peters sings that she doesn’t “burn one with my neighbour anymore, ever since he put that sticker on his bumper,” while acknowledging “Goddamn, it sure got quiet on the high road, as it led us straight down into hell.”

Peters is one of the finest contemporary singer-songwriters, and while the songs of Dancing With The Beast don’t pulse with vigour, their energy is found within lyrical magic and incredible instrumentation. Those of us missing Nanci Griffith will want to give Dancing With the Beast a listen, if only to hear a line from “Lay Low” that should have been sung by the now silent mistress of the melancholy:

“It’s a good three hours to Aberdeen, and I’ve read all the magazines,                                 and the jokes are all played out or wearin’ thin.
So I lie back and close my eyes and I let that old sadness rise,
and I listen to ‘Hello In There’ again.”

A coming-of-age summer of teenage torment and manipulation is highlighted with wistful regret in “The Boy From Rye,” another song with enough universality to be appreciated from a distance of years, while the late night vignette of “predator or prey” plays out not without hope in “Truckstop Angel.” The vividly potent line “I swallow their indifference, but I choke on my regrets” is going to stay with me.

Across its fifty-minutes, there is so much here that resonates, and the album’s finest song may be “Wichita,” a lively-sounding Peters-Glover co-write. The combination of Doug Lancio’s and Kimbrough’s guitars complement the emotional starkness of this tale of abuse and reckoning, with Douglas’ contributions ratcheting up the tension. Long before the protagonist declares “Mama always told me if you want something done, you do it for yourself so I loaded up her gun…” the outcome of the song is apparent.

I don’t regularly review albums I purchase: there is little enough time to get to projects I am obligated to write about. Sometimes though, an album reaches across space and just grabs on. Dancing With The Beast is one of those collections, an album that will find itself on my year-end list of favourites. Gretchen Peters may sing of shades of gray, but her voice is always replete with colour. Listen.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

 

 

Hadley McCall Thackston- review   5 comments

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Hadley McCall Thackston Hadley McCall Thackston Wolfe Island Records

When was the last time an album reminded you of both Elle King and the Handsome Family?

Welcome Hadley McCall Thackston!

McCall Thackston has a bright, buoyant voice ideal for bittersweet love ballads and moodscapes of melody and melancholy.  Certainly as playful as King—it has something to do with how they roll their rhymes—but with depth enriched by lyrical litheness  reminiscent of Rennie Sparks, McCall Thackston has unleashed one hell of a debut album, a timeless iteration of Americana, alt-country, or whatever the heck we are calling it this month.

Whereas King sings of “Exs and Ohs”, McCall Thackston takes on “Ellipsis,” perhaps the first time this particular punctuation has had a ‘love’ song built around it: not even Dan Baird and Terry Anderson went there. “Wallace’s Song (Sage Bush)” rubs against country sentimentality—that’s a positive from where I stand— with “Ghost” delving into more introspective territory. Jane Scarpanoni’s cello serves as counterpoint in duet with McCall Thackston’s voice in “Somehow,” a tremendous song and performance.

It is on songs like “Ghost”—and “Redbird”, “Devil or Angel,” and “Last Mountain Waltz”— that the Handsome Family come to mind. Lyrically evocative with distinctive, atmospheric melodies, these songs establish Hadley McCall Thackston’s mystical montage, each rooted in her experience. Producer (and more) Hugh Christopher Brown has surrounded McCall Thankston with incredible, intuitive instrumentalists—including Elijah, James, and John Abrams, Gregor Beresford, Burke Carroll, Joey Wright, and Teilhard Frost who further embellish the ten songs with texture and colour.

She also explores the immediacy of contemporary circumstance. “Change” challenges current events head-on, concluding with “Another black man’s life cut short by police,” while “No” is only slightly more circumspect in its imagery: “You cannot board a boat to sail upon my land, because I’ve already claimed it for myself. So there you’ll stand, while you’re begging me for refuge cuz you got no place to go…”

Hadley McCall Thackston is a product of the south, Georgia specifically, and has musically matured within the emergent Wolfe Island community. She came to my attention through vocal contributions to Stephen Stanley Band’s outstanding (and unfortunately overlooked by Polaris Prize jurors) Jimmy & the Moon album, and this splendid self-titled album has elevated my regard for this delightful and strong singer, songwriter, and artist.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

 

Steve Dawson- Lucky Hand review   Leave a comment

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Steve Dawson Lucky Hand Black Hen Music

Immersing myself in Steve Dawson’s impressive catalogue these past weeks, I wasn’t surprised as much reinvigorated by the intensity and diversity of the music he has chosen to create over the past decade and a half. There are certainly commonalities linking his recordings—the quality of his playing, naturally, but also his obvious appreciation for the history of all roots-based music—but what becomes most apparent is Dawson’s incredible versatility. When one encounters music from a Steve Dawson album, one is never quite sure what will be heard: blues, folk, country, string-band, and jazz, it is all there. Equally evident is that there is no doubt that one is listening to a master.

Steve Dawson is one of Canada’s most significant roots musicians and producers. Now based in Nashville, Dawson continues to develop his own songwriting while honing his studio and instrumental chops.

I’ve admitted it before, and I am comfortable stating it again: most instrumental roots music albums—bluegrass, blues, folk, and the all-encompassing Americana—bore me. Wait, that is a little strong, and ‘bore’ is a lazy word. Still, instrumental albums certainly don’t engage me to the degree that music with verses and rhyme does. Still, I’ll listen to Doc Watson and Flatt & Scruggs’ Strictly Instrumental or the Tony Rice Bluegrass Guitar Collection anytime; I guess it just depends on the presentation—noodle incessantly or aimlessly and you lose me before the third cut.

No fear of that with Steve Dawson’s Lucky Hand. Mr. Black Hen Music has created, with a handful of guests, a compelling collection of—alternately—lively, moody, and progressive acoustic, instrumental roots tunes.

Across the 45-minute set are expansive and airy solo and duet pieces as well as a few full-blown string wizard combo collaborations. What is especially appealing (but not terribly surprising) is the multiplicity of sounds Dawson brings to his compositions. There is a subtle bluegrass groove to “Hollow Tree Gap,” while the atmospheric “Lucky Hand,” “Bentonia Blues,” and “Hale Road Revelation” have blues foundations, the latter featuring an impressive slide performance. Dawson lays out a fitting and inspired tribute to Doc Watson-styled phrasing and picking on “Lonesome Ace.”

Dawson also circles back to long-time partner Jesse Zubot on several string-rich pieces including the playful “Old Hickory Breakdown” and the musical imagery that is “Bone Cave.” Dawson is further complemented by Josh Zubot (violin), Peggy Lee (cello), and John Kastelic (viola).  John Reischman joins Dawson for the slide and mandolin duet “Little Harpeth,” a piece that (to these abused and untrained ears) weaves into near neoclassical territory.

The cinematic opening “The Circuit Rider of Pigeon Forge” is an expansive suite effectively incorporating ostensibly discordant essentials of western film scores of the 50s, chamber music, and intimate late-night guitar progressions with rock ‘n’ roll fervor. Somehow, it all works, and sets the tone for a musical journey that is consistently challenging, surprising, and unblemished.

Lucky Hand is Steve Dawson’s eighth ‘solo’ album. It stands comfortably beside his best albums including Solid States & Loose Ends and Nightshade.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee.

 

 

 

 

Horseshoes & Hand Grenades- The Ode review   Leave a comment

the ode

For a variety of reasons, this review was a long time coming: apologies all around. A strong roots album, more bluegrass than not, but not the father-in-law’s bluegrass certainly…and only barely mine. I would rather refer to them as an acoustiblue band (man, how I wish that term had taken off!) or the term I had played with about the same time, acoustigrass: still, the term currently getting traction is Grassicana, which also works. My review is published at Country Standard Time.

Joyann Parker- Hard To Love review   1 comment

Joyann

Joyann Parker Hard To Love Hopeless Romantics Records

When I reflect on the joys writing about roots music bring me, I can itemize many elements that inject pleasure in my life. Among them, and perhaps in the Top 3, is that in writing about music in the way I do—off the mainstream grid, without the day-to-day constrictions more widely read writers must traverse—I am exposed to musicians doing their thing within similar circumstances.

In this way and over the last two decades I have been exposed to ‘local heroes’ I might never have heard otherwise, be they John Paul Keith, Jay Clark, Brigitte DeMeyer, Jeffrey Halford, James Reams, Murder Murder, Diana Jones, and too many more to mention. Along the way, my definition of roots music has expanded to include more than ‘fools on stools,’ roots rock, and bluegrass.

So after a few hundred newspaper columns, dozens of bluegrass radio broadcasts, and likely a thousand or so reviews and posted ramblings, Joyann Parker comes to my attention.

The immense, propulsive bass notes that open the album are the first hint that we are in for a treat with Hard To Love, the Minneapolis singer’s second album. Promising that, “By the time I get to Memphis, you’ll be gone,” Parker (producer, guitar, piano, and trumpet) wastes no time establishing her power as a vocalist and bandleader. Her blend of blues and roots includes plenty of Memphis-Muscle Shoals spirited soul, and with just a hint of country in her voice, Joyann Parker is perfect for those of us who have come to appreciate music originating from the south. “I got to keep on rolling on down,” she sing as a bridge to the album’s opening track, “Memphis” and for the next forty-five minutes, she doesn’t let up.

If that wasn’t enough, she next slides into “Envy,” a slick and sassy Dusty Springfield/Marlena Shaw styled workout: Parker is taking no prisoners. Buoyed by a killer-tight band—Mark Lamoine (co-producer, guitar, and background vox), Tim Wick (piano and organ), Michael Carvale (co-producer and bass), and Alec Tackmann (drums and percussion), Parker asks the eternal question: “Do you love her like you love me?” One gets the sense the answer isn’t going to much matter: she is moving on!

Like the best soul-enriched blues, Hard To Love contains tales of trouble, misplaced devotion, and broken vows and shattered hearts. Some songs simmer with desire (“Jigsaw Heart” and “Home”) while other songs shade their passions behind a danceable beat that few this side the late Sharon Jones can manage (“Dizzy”, for example). Like the best of songwriters, Parker takes her experiences and threads them through those of others, creating relatable songs containing universal truths.

And, you can dance to it! Without attempting to sound retro, Parker brings to mind rarely encountered Stax artists including Barbara Stephens and Linda Lyndell on groovers such as “Who What When Where Why” and “What Happened To Me,” while “Bluer Than You,” “Hard To Love,” and “Evil Hearted” take more subtle tracts. New Orleans sounds are explored in the free-spirted “Ray” and the lively “Your Mama.”

Alongside other ‘big voices’ such as Ann Vriend, Erin Costelo, and Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar (speaking of local heroes) Joyann Parker has become an immediate Fervor Coulee favourite. Love it!