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John Akapo- Paradise Blues review   Leave a comment

 John Akapo Paradise Blues Mensch House Records

I like the blues. I don’t love the blues. There are contemporary blues artists whose music I do love, RoryBlock, Eric Bibb, and Crystal Shawanda among them, but I will never love the blues the way I love bluegrass, southern country soul, and much of the “singer-songwriterAmericana almost-country” set.  

But, I do love the debut album from John Akapo.

Taumei “Big John” Akapois a resident of Hawaii, Maui-born I believe. His Samoan heritage echoes in his interpretation of classic blues sounds, an appealing breezy openness offering something just a little bit different. Paradise Blues is a 35-minute blues journey across well-traveled tradition with invigorating originality.

Three blues classics ground the album, including a lively opening slice of Robert Johnson, “Ramblin’ On MyMind.” One of the album’s centerpiece songs— “Hindsight (Missionary Blues)”—leaves no doubt about the impact colonization had on Akapo’s ancestors.  “Little Lani,” and “Maui Drive” also place Akapo’s Island environs at the fore,  incorporating regional moods, events, and locations over hard-driving blues beats.

Darkness permeates Muddy Waters'”I Can’t Be Satisfied,” with “Caramac Blues” (“Life is like a box full of Caramacs, we take all we want but we can’t put nothin’back”) offering more uplifting aspirations (“Be the light, be thechange you want to see.”) Growling through “Big Road Blues,” one realizes the breadth of Akapo’s vocal range.

“Fighting for Love”offers a plaintive take on an imperfect relationship (“We had a good run, it wasn’t all bad times,”) but one senses a situation of ‘too little, too late;’ here and elsewhere, Akapo’s voice reveals an elegant, soulful maturity often missing in blues presentations. Perhaps “Don’t Believe Her” offers up this dude’s story when he finally recognizes his reality.

Largely acoustic, Paradise Blues offers, as Akapo aptly describes it, “a tree rooted in traditional blues, sprinkled with Pacific salt water.” Good stuff. 

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Posted 2018 December 1 by Donald Teplyske in Uncategorized

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Jonathan Byrd & The Pickup Cowboys- Pickup Cowboy review   Leave a comment

JonathanByrd & the Pickup Cowboys PickupCowboy

With this concise slice of retro-modern country music, North Carolina folk/Americana veteran Jonathan Byrd turns the clock back about three years, before the vagrancies of reality impinged upon best laid plans.

Inspired by a ‘humble badass’ ethos, The Pickup Cowboys—Byrd (guitar, Rhodes, percussion), Johnny Waken (guitar, mandolin, organ, piano, harmonica, percussion, musical saw, vocals), and Paul Ford (cello and bass)—toured for years, and made a single recording which was shelved upon Ford receiving what would transpire to be a fatal brain tumor diagnosis. With the passage of time, Byrd and Waken fleshed out the recording with Joanna Miller (drums), and Alexa Dirks and Andrina Turenne (backing vocals) to produce this album.

Reminding us of favourite singers and songwriters including Peter Cooper and D. B. Rielly, Byrd possesses a naturally smooth voice, one that is, in turn, gentle (“We Used To Be Birds” and “It Don’t Make Sense”) or playful (“Tractor Pull” and “Temporary Tattoo,”) and which can be infused with challenge as the song demands, as on the epic “Lakota Sioux” (as with the album closing—”Do You Dream”—written by friend Matt Fockler) and “When the Well Runs Dry,” co-written with Steep Canyon Ranger Charles Humphrey III.

The original sessions transpired in Chapel Hill and were completed in Winnipeg, but there is no sense of incongruence despite the distance and time between sessions: mostly, I just like mentioning Winnipeg whenever I can.

As a poet and writer, Byrd is circumspect in lyrical development, but not so conservative that we can’t imagine his characters and spaces. The guy driving on two bald tires after fishing for his breakfast (“Pickup Cowboy”) materializes fully textured: we all know that guy, going from job to job, seldom settling down for too long, no mortgage, no payments, no footprints. The transient, boomtown community of trailers and guys sleeping in their trucks of “When The Well Runs Dry” could be in Kansas, Oklahoma, Alberta, or damn near anywhere else where the earth is squeezed of every bit of wealth it can produce.

Sometimes things just get away from you, as Byrd reveals in “Temporary Tattoo. “Who can’t understand the sentiment of “I showed my love for you with a temporary tattoo?” The “damn fool” protagonist isn’t mean-spirited: he just doesn’t want it to hurt, and besides—how was he to know she would elevate things to a more permanent impression? Hopefulness and vulnerability balance (with Townshendesque echoes) in “Taking It Back,” with faith and beauty prominent in “We Used To Be Birds,” previously recorded in tandem with Chris Kokesh.

Paul Ford’s subtle, susurrous cello effects—propulsive plucking (“When The Well Runs Dry,” “Tractor Pull,”) articulate bowing (“It Don’t Make Sense,” “Do You Dream,”) and momentarily ominous (“We Used To Be Birds”)—provides Pickup Cowboy an encompassing sound near-unique within country music. Jonathan Byrd has been making really good albums for a long time, The Law and the Lonesome, Cackalack, and The Barn Birds disc among them. Pickup Cowboy is another. Seek it out.

Craig Moreau- A Different Kind of Train review   Leave a comment

Craig Moreau

Craig Moreau A Different Kind of Train

Ever since Kitty Wells sang “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” there have been those who have chased that perfect “country song” balance between complexity of thought and lyrical clarity Jay Miller captured in 1952.

From Mariel Buckley to Leeroy Stagger, Alberta has no shortage of singing songwriters who flirt with country music. Then there is Craig Moreau, a Calgary artist who is straight-up, blatantly and unapologetically, Country. Songwriting, and country songwriting specifically, forms the thematic core of Craig Moreau’s masterful album, A Different Kind of Train.

Early in this forty-minute album, he sings:

And there never was a pot of gold,
At the rainbow’s end—
Just another empty hole to fill,
And another fence to mend.

That’s a country lyric, no argument, and it comes in one of Moreau’s gentler songs, a reflective and seemingly ‘lost-love’ song filled with self-recrimination directed—ultimately—toward the artist’s pursuit of inspiration. Like the greatest songwriters, Moreau presents inventive dichotomy in select songs, revealing different messages to listeners. “Thirsty Soul” is about songwriting, not drinking, “The Muse” is as much a woman as artistic stimulation.

Moreau’s grizzled voice—somewhere between Waylon, Billy Joe Shaver, and Darrell Scott—appears a living thing. It carries gravity on the challenging title track, a lament to a depressed, hotel room inhabitant facing (figurative? literal?) death, presents desperate acceptance within “Best Of Me,” a song equally downbeat in subject, but not in mood. “We all got our demons, failed ambitions, guilty feelings” Moreau sings in “Old Man and the Fiver”—a song that reveals shades of Guy Clark in its lyrical choices— recognizing we are all trying to get by today with decisions previously made.

It is with this vocal gravitas through which Moreau communicates—the melding of sage, artist, and Everyman—that is his strength. He sings with a profound understanding that happiness is fleeting, struggle a constant, forward momentum a dream. No accident one of A Different Kind of Train‘s charged realizations, found in “Shadows Left Behind,” is “I’ve had my illusions of control, holding fast to nothing for fear of losing all.”

There is no little bit of “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”‘s frustration of reality woven into within “Off The Rack”:

I can’t help to think about the ones who’ve gone before me,
As I rush to take my place among the line.
Hard work and sacrifice just to build ourselves a little life,
That fades and changes colours with the times.

Crafted in both Austin and Lethbridge (at Stagger’s studio, with Leeroy co-producing), Moreau’s third album of hardwood hewn, homespun Americana is as surprising as it is comforting. The drumming that opens the album’s sole cover—an otherwise faithful rendering of Jean Ritchie’s “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”—starts with several seconds of forceful drumming that had me asking, ‘Are you ready, Steve?’

Craig Moreau continues to hold faith that, one way or another, his country dream is bound to be realized, even if he “hasn’t seen the sunshine in a while.” With cover art courtesy a Steve Coffey painting (himself a terrific Alberta singer-songwriter) A Different Kind of Train allows Craig Moreau opportunity to continue his journey, “waiting on a rhyme.”

 

Mickey Galyean & Cullen’s Bridge- Songs From the Blue Ridge review   Leave a comment

Gaylean

Mickey Galyean & Cullen’s Bridge
Songs From the Blue Ridge
Rebel Records

Unheralded bluegrass bands performing music to the highest quality abound.

Hailing from the Blue Ridge Mountain area of Virginia and North Carolina, Mickey Galyean & Cullen’s Bridge have been performing and developing without the benefit of overbearing promotional folks and management. They are doing it honestly: woodshedding, performing, and recording. Their previous release, My Daddy’s Grass, was an impressive collection of new songs (“I Found My Daddy’s Grass,” “Brother Paul,” and “I’d Have A Dime”) via Rick Pardue (and his collaborators) and bandleader Galyean (“Home With The Blues”) further strengthened with powerful interpretations of familiar chestnuts (“It’s A Cold, Cold World,” “Dark As A Dungeon,” and “We’ll Be Sweethearts in Heaven.”)

Songs From the Blue Ridge is every bit its equal.

Recorded ‘the old fashioned way’ by the band members—Galyean (guitar, lead vocals), Pardue (banjo, tenor vocals), Brad Hiatt (acoustic bass, baritone vocals), and Billy Hawks (fiddle)—in a single studio without guest appearances, Songs From the Blue Ridge is a collection of songs that will provide endless entertainment.

While few of us ever need to hear “Dixieland For Me” again, the remaining eleven selections are without fault—and “Dixieland For Me” suffers only because it is overly familiar. The album’s centerpiece is a driving rendition of the Johnson Mountain Boys’ “Too Late to Say Goodbye,” a Dudley Connell song that we haven’t heard recorded in much too long. Another classic seldom encountered is John Duffey’s hopeful (and somewhat self-centered, demanding, and presuming) “Wear a Red Rose,” while “The Drunkard’s Dream” is oft-heard, but seldom with such musically dark overtones. Nice.

The new material is as inspiring. Pardue again comes through for his cohorts with both “You Can Go to Heaven” and a song many of us can relate to, “No Candy in My Bluegrass.” Over a strong bass rhythm and a mess of impressive banjo rolls, we hear words like an elixir:

He was standing in the back row shaking his head,
Considering the fact all his heroes were dead.
He was hearing something that he didn’t rightly know—
Was it souped-up country or bad rock and roll.
Don’t put no candy in my bluegrass,
I don’t want my whiskey watered down.
Don’t give me no electrified baloney—
I just want to hear that mountain sound!

Preachin’ to the converted, and no complaints about it.

Galyean’s songwriting contribution is similarly well-conceived. “Now I’m Losing You” is a ‘woe, you’re leaving me’ number with some flair, not the least of which is Hawks’ fiddle work. His father Cullen’s “The Blue Ridge Mountains” ties the project together amid “tall lonesome old pines.” Brad Hiatt’s “She’s Gone” is memorable, a somewhat empowering tale of self-determination, and Hawks’ fiddle showcase “Outback” is more than filler—Hiatt’s rhythm sets the pace, but it is the interplay of Hawks and Pardue that sets the tune apart.

Filled-out by terrific readings of the thematically linked “The Convict and the Rose” and “These Old Prison Bars,” Mickey Galyean & Cullen’s Bridge have created an intriguing, lasting bluegrass recording. Rebel Records has done it again!

As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road- True Grass Again review   1 comment

True Grass

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road
True Grass Again
Pinecastle Records

When we last heard from venerable bluegrass vets Carolina Road, the Lorraine Jordan-led group was teaming with 70s and 80s country chart toppers including Eddy Raven, John Conlee, Lee Greenwood, Crystal Gayle, and John Anderson for a disc of ‘grassified, rearview-mirror country imaginings. The results were enjoyable if not breathtaking; such projects suffer an uneasy dichotomy featuring singers unwilling or unable to divert from the vocal cadence they’ve employed for forty years—the music is bluegrass, but the singing remains within a familiar country mold.

While capable and comfortable finding veins between country and bluegrass, Carolina Road has always been strongest following Jordan’s keen vision of bluegrass. Songs such as “Can’t You Hear the Mountains Calling,” “Back to My Roots,” “Cold Kentucky Snow,” and “A Stop in Southport Towne” are bluegrass, through and through. Fully realized with True Grass Again, Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Dream create a faithful, refreshing representation of the ever-evolving genre by ensuring a secure grounding in the traditional substratum of bluegrass.

Carolina Road remains Jordan (mandolin, vocals), Ben Greene (banjo, vocals), Josh Goforth (fiddle, vocals), Tommy Long (guitar, vocals), and Matt Hooper (fiddle), with bluegrass veteran Randy Graham (Bluegrass Cardinals, Quicksilver, Continental Divide) now joining on bass and vocals. All appear throughout True Grass Again, although not all the band members are featured instrumentally. Jason Moore and Terry Smith share bass duties, while Will Jones handles the majority of the guitar parts, with several guest vocalists—including Graham—featured.

The North Carolina-based group doesn’t waste any time laying down their manifesto. Joined by traditional stalwarts Danny Paisley and Junior Sisk, Tommy Long and his cohorts flat declare:

Well ol’ Cord had it right about crime down on the Row,
They murdered country music, tore out its heart and soul.
Now they’re trying to kill the ‘grass handed down by Bill Monroe,
Maybe someday they’ll find their way to just leave us alone.

“True Grass” isn’t the first song declaring a bluegrass reconfiguring is desired in this ‘big tent,’ all-encompassing industry, one which appears to continually attempt to redefine itself. The C. David Stewart song nails the conviction while ignoring the reality: to pay the bills, the genre must evolve. And there’s the rub: how do those who love the traditions of bluegrass compete within a crowded Americana-dominated world?

If bluegrass has taught us anything over its seventy-plus years, it is that we are great at ignoring financial reality: bluegrass isn’t about paying a mortgage as much as it is the sweet harmonies, “old fiddles, a guitar and mandolin, with a banjo, a Dobro, and an old bass walkin’ in.” And True Grass Again delivers on this promise.

“Run Little Fox,” “Little Country Home,” and “Portrait of the Blues” are they types of songs and performances that have made bluegrass what it is and always should be. This tradition is further entrenched by a terrific, lively rendition of “Preaching, Praying, Singing” and the more temperate “I Hear Angels Calling Your Name.” Randy Graham is given three leads, including “Pickin’ Rock Out of the Bluegrass” and “Poor Monroe.” Jordan’s “Another Soldier,” sung by Goforth, is a song that could find itself becoming a bluegrass standard.

Within “True Grass,” the lyric, “If we are true to our roots, our music might survive” closes the final verse. Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road appear to have recommitted themselves to this mission as their bluegrass promise. True Grass Again is a fine return to form for this well-established and soulful bluegrass outfit.

As always, thank you for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

 

 

Sister Sadie II review   1 comment

Sister Sadie wSister Sadie II Pinecastle Recording Company

There are a lot of great bluegrass bands working today, and I would put Sister Sadie up against any single one of them.

There remains novelty being an all-female bluegrass group. We should be beyond it, but as an industry we aren’t near there yet. We are not yet past the point where festival bookers tell prospective acts, “Sorry, we already have our girl act for the weekend.”

Sister Sadie may well be on a mission to slap the hell out of that worn, blinkered attitude. When skills are to the level of distinction found within this quintet, gender should not and cannot be a factor of limitations. Sister Sadie’s debut album was among the finest to be released in 2016, and II is stronger—even more unified, the group has melded into a seamless force greater than its exceedingly impressive parts. There is sufficient polish provided to the recordings, produced by the band and engineered, mixed, and mastered by Scott Vestal, but not so much shine is applied that the music sounds artificial or over-produced. The quartet’s natural essence is given prominence, a traditional vision bolstered by contemporary approaches.

With Dale Ann Bradley (guitar) and Tina Adair (mandolin and guitar) leading the way, and Gena Britt (banjo) singing a couple, Sister Sadie has a lead and harmony vocal presence no bluegrass combo can match.

Tina Adair sings lead on four numbers. The album’s lead track is the no-nonsense and soulful “Losing You Blues,” written by Adair and Doug Bartlett. Throughout the album, Adair proves that she hasn’t finished defining herself as a bluegrass singer and songwriter; her “Jay Hugh” is an old-time bluegrass character study of multi-dimensional complexity. The sorrow conveyed in Woody Guthrie’s “900 Miles” is palatable, honest and profound, and neither Linda Ronstadt or Bonnie Raitt sang “Love Has No Pride” with greater intensity than does Adair.

Listening to Dale Ann Bradley sing is always a treat, and she clears her very high bar of performance on this recording. Her temperate approach is ideally suited to these songs including the formidable “I’m Not a Candle in the Wind” and “No Smoky Mountains,” while the group picks things up for Dan Fogelberg’s “Morning Sky.” Bradley’s interpretation of newly inducted Bluegrass Hall of Fame member Tom T. Hall’s “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew” is as fine as any recorded within the genre, with Deanie Richardson’s mournful fiddle adding atmosphere. Bradley’s guitar playing on this country classic is also impressive.

Richardson also takes a prominent position within “When I Lay My Burden Down,” with Bradley’s inspired lead voice complemented by Britt and Adair’s harmony.

Gena Britt doesn’t possess the vocal heft of Bradley and Adair, and her considerable charm emanates from the lightness of her approach. “It’s You Again” is a fairly grave song of longing and distance, but Sister Sadie’s rendition—sung by Britt—has a gentle hopefulness that Skip Ewing’s lacked. “Something to Lose” has a Bradley-like feel, and Britt delivers this sermon to maturity with worldly awareness. Her “Raleigh’s Ride” is well-named, a jaunty traverse through traditional sounds. Beth Lawrence’s steady bass rhythm, here and throughout the album, provide Sister Sadie their rock-solid foundation.

Sister Sadie is no novelty or off-season ‘super-group.’ They are a bona fide bluegrass force, more than capable as festival headliners. That they have now released a second album of soon-to-be classic performances is testimony to their ascension within the ever-expanding bluegrass field. Hopefully II forever retires the phrase, “pretty good for a girl.”

 

Jenny Whiteley (2000) review   Leave a comment

From the extensive Fervor Coulee archives

J WhiteleyJenny Whiteley Jenny Whiteley Self-released (2000)

Jenny Whiteley is a treasure for roots music fans.

Her debut solo album is a recording of rare qualities. She successfully blends elements of traditional, hurting country with folk boldness and bluegrass virtuosity.

Whiteley was recently honoured at the Juno Awards for best roots/traditional solo recording, and for once the industry got it right.

The album begins with the depressing image of an outsider who “lives alone in the old family home” with “a dog that’ll chase you back down the road.” The tasteful playing of a band featuring her brother Dan on mandolin perfectly captures the spirit of a person caught up in his own self-fulfilling image.

Whiteley displays remarkable abilities for creating characters in a few well-crafted lines. The protagonist of “Lived It Up” reflects on a past where a “cheating heart has brought me the trouble I’ve found; I lived it up and I can’t live it down.”

Equally comfortable assuming the roles of male and female characters, Whiteley, in both “Gloria” and “Train Goin’ West,” successfully captures the longing, bravado, and regret known to everyone.

Comprised largely of originals, these cuts stack up favourably with those written by Emmylou Harris for her recent Red Dirt Girl.

Whiteley has included three brilliant songs either written or co-written by Canadian alternative country legend Fred Eaglesmith. “Soda Machine,” from Eaglesmith’s Drive-In Movie album, has a stark, Cowboy Junkies sound emphasized by atmospheric acoustic bass. “’75” is simply a brilliant song waiting for a screenplay; Whiteley and her co-writers capture the exuberance and self assurance of teenagers while recognizing the inevitable folly of their confidence.

Jenny Whiteley is a major talent. Her Juno Award must help attract attention to the radio power brokers of this country. This is the most impressive collection of original material I’ve stumbled across in months.

(originally published March 16, 2001 Red Deer Advocate) Side note: This was the first album placed in my hand by an artist; I appreciated Jenny’s confidence in me at Wintergrass ’01, and continue to thank all artists who get music into my hands. Additional side note: Shortly after publishing this piece, I pitched a Jenny Whiteley mini-feature to No Depression. Check their website. Can’t find it? Yes, it was rejected.