Saturday, January 29, 2011

CD Review: Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen At Edwards Barn

One of the fixtures in my adult music-going life has been the duo of Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen. I have had the great opportunity to see these guys a number of times in a number of different venues, and there are a set of indelible memories in my head from the various shows.

Seeing them at the Bottom Line with Eric Lane and Paul Getto, we had sat through an amazing show and called them back to stage for an encore. Eric leans inward and says, "Wouldn't it be awesome if they played 'Eight Miles High' now?" A microsecond later, we heard "dum-de-duh-de-duh-duh" from Herb's guitar and went nuts.

In July 2000, they closed out the opening night of the short-lived Winterhawk 2000: Bluegrass and Beyond festival. Capping a day of music that had included Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the John Cowan Band and Mary Gauthier, the band took the stage and launched into Chris's original "Like a Hurricane" with Chris on guitar, Herb on banjo, Jim Monahan on guitar and Bill Bryson on an acoustic bass guitar -- by the time we got to "Turn, Turn, Turn," Herb had traded in his banjo for a guitar, too, and as the stage lights played off the evening mist, those four guitar-shaped instruments on stage hit us with a wall of great sound.

There also was the time that Andy Bean and I saw them at B.B. King's in New York and someone requested that they play the Burrito Brothers' draft-dodging classic "My Uncle" and "play it for George W.!" To which Hillman responded, "Hey! I voted for him, and I support him." An awkward air descended on the New York crowd -- some of it even escaped with a hissing sound. And the less said about the disastrous final appearance of Rice, Rice, Hillman and Pedersen at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival (when the band was headlining the Saturday night show and the Rice brothers were mainlining booze) the better, but it certainly was memorable...

With the September 2010 release of At Edwards Barn on Rounder Records, it has become possible to relive many of the great concert memories in the comfort of my own living room. Recorded at their annual benefit for the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation of Santa Maria, California, and the Gobezie-Goshu Home for the Elderly in Adwa, Ethiopia, and featuring Bill Bryson on bass, Larry Park on guitar and David Mansfield on fiddle, this is a solid album from start to finish.

They start the disc off with the Stanley Brothers' "Going Up Home," allowing those Hillman-Pederson harmonies to welcome the listener to the show. The band jumps in on the chorus, but this one's really about the sining. It gives way to the energetic Desert Rose Band classic "Love Reunited," where the lingering harmony of the verse cuts quickly into "Don't walk away!," the opening line of the chorus. Then comes the big hit -- "Turn, Turn, Turn" -- with Hillman picking out the signature opening lick on his mandolin and then taking a nice little solo later on. The energy and singing are solid here, and it's tough to imagine not getting a big grin out of this recording.

"Eight Miles High," which comes later on the disc, is similarly well-executed: bass and guitar provide the well-known riff, a little fiddle flutter and mandolin sparkle eventually yield to the gorgeous harmonies of Hillman and Pedersen. David Mansfield plays some tasteful psychedelic notes on the fiddle here and there, and Hillman's mandolin chop keeps the song moving along.

From the Burritos' catalogue, we get solid versions of both "Wheels" and "Sin City." The Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love" and Buck Owens' "Together Again" pay tribute to the duo's country progenitors.

One of my all-time favorite songs, Pedersen's "Wait a Minute" is maybe slightly besmirched by Herb getting testy about Chris's tuning while he introduces the song, which is then followed by a false start. I'm not entirely sure if I would have left all of that on the album, but I guess there's some reason to keep the live show together, warts and all. The actual execution of the song is right where I would want it to be though -- all of the beauty, all of the emotion, the great harmonies, the moving swoop on the chorus. The liner notes -- by James Rosen, whose credits for writing the notes are that he is a Fox News correspondnet and the author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate -- are maybe slightly besmirched by the description of the song as an "obscure country gem." Obscure? I'm not so sure about that...

The disc wraps up with the lovely "Heaven's Lullaby," sweetly played and sung, leaving the listener contented and looking forward to the next live encounter with Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, which is now as close at hand as just hitting the play button again.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Two Old-Time Trios and a Whole Lot of Instrument Swapping

When is a folk festival not a folk festival? When it's also a concert series! And we denizens of Champaign-Urbana are quite lucky that the fine folks who bring us the CU Folk and Roots Festival are also spreading the joy over the course of the entire year with a series of concerts.

Tonight at Urbana's Independent Media Center, it was a Midwestern collision of bicoastal old-time trios. From the West Coast, it was the Foghorn Trio, the current incarnation of Portland's Foghorn Stringband. From the East Coast -- from that northern homeland of the Appalachian diaspora and the diaspora of the ancient race of insane record collectors: Brooklyn -- it was the Dust Busters. These two bands switched instruments around among themselves and then came all together for a barn-burnin' triple fiddle conclusion to the evening's entertainment.

The Foghorn Trio opened up. Caleb Klauder was sporting a mandolin; Stephen 'Sammy' Lind was on fiddle, and Nadine Landry was on guitar. They ripped through a fiddle tune and then into "Greenback Dollar," inviting us to sing-a-long. And then the first instrument shift happened, as Caleb put down the mandolin and picked up the fiddle, so that we could get the real Cajun style going on "Le Sud de la Louisiane." Caleb sang the vocals and played the fiddle on "Liza Jane" (learned from Kyle Creed's recording), while Sammy switched to banjo. For the gospel tune "Little Black Train," Sammy stayed on banjo, while Caleb went back to banjo. Finally, Nadine got into the act, putting down the guitar to play bass on a terrific version of Bill Monroe's "Evening Prayer Blues," which Sammy played guitar on. (You got it? Or no?) Caleb's playing on "Evening Prayer Blues" really was superb -- he had this great little mandolin bounce that seemed just right for the tune.

The band actually stayed the same for a moment -- mandolin, guitar and bass -- in order to play another bluegrass number, "I Want to Be Loved (But Only By You)." And then Caleb switched to a second guitar for the Carter Family's "Hello Central." In order to play a Cajun tune from the Red Stick Ramblers, Sammy needed to get back on the fiddle, and that's where he stayed to play a Missouri fiddle tune from the repertoire of Lonnie Robertson. The Carter Family songbook came back into play with "Let's Be Lovers Again," and then Sammy played a solo "Yew Piney Mountain" that then turned into a rip-roaring "Reuben's Train."

We called the Foghorn Trio back for an encore with no questions asked (and no refusals allowed), and what did they do? They busted out a new instrument! Sammy picked up the accordion with Caleb on fiddle and Nadine on guitar for another Cajun tune.

After a short break, the Dust Busters came out to clean up. New York old-time impresario Eli Smith -- he hosts the Down Home Radio Show, runs the Brooklyn Folk Festival and teaches banjo to aspiring old-time enthusiasts -- was armed with a banjo-mandolin (watch out!); Craig Judelman was sporting a fiddle; and Walker Shepherd had on a guitar. They launched into the tune "Catlettsburg," which Craig punctuated with plenty of "Indian War Whoop"-style hoots and hollers. Eli went from the banjo-mandolin to the sturdy old five-string for the Georgia Yellow Hammers' tune "Kiss Me Quick and Go." But then he switched to harmonica for "Prohibition is a Failure," the Lowe Stokes song and the title track from the Dust Busters most recent disc. "Rich Man, Poor Man" featured the same line-up, but then Eli was on guitar and Walker on banjo-mandolin for "The Ploughboy Hop."

They played a "Meet Me by the Moonlight" variant known as "The Bootlegger's Story" and then switched to twin fiddles for one called "The Old Folks Better Go to Bed." Eli played the Jew's harp and sang a couple of verses of "Turkey in the Straw" without the other two-thirds of the band before Walker sang the lead on George Landers' great, great song "Rolling Mills Are Burning Down." (Walker was playing banjo; Craig fiddle and Eli guitar for that one.) "Stockade Blues" and "Give the Fiddler a Dram" closed up their solo portion of the set.

And then we got the full treat: both bands together: two fiddles, a banjo, a banjo-mandolin, guitar and bass for one tune; then triple fiddles for a no-doubt-firey "Fire on the Mountain."

We demanded more. They had to think about it, but then they complied, giving us a twin fiddle version plus mandolin, banjo and bass version of "John Henry."

A very fine night of old-time music from two young trios.

Could it have been better? Well, the previous night, Bruce Molsky had also joined them on stage, so I venture to say that it could possibly have gotten even better. But I certainly had no complaints as I headed out the door.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

David Francey Movie

The mighty Brian Frizzell called my attention some time ago to the existence of a movie featuring the terrific music of David Francey called Burning Bright.

In the following clip, he amazingly starts to harmonize with himself about three-quarters of the way through:

Paul Cezanne!

Tom Meltzer, the author of the following song, points out that today is the 172nd anniversary of Paul Cezanne's birth.

This is the best celebration that I can think of:

The song was later released on the 5 Chinese Brothers' brilliant first CD Singer Songwriter Beggarman Thief. That disc is really an incredible collection of songs and well worth hunting down.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Chris Smither @ Ashfield Town Hall in Ashfield, MA, January 15th, 2011

One of the great privileges of living in Pioneer Valley, as many Sound of Blackbirds readers probably know, is that it is the stomping ground of lots of American “roots” musicians. Singers, songwriters, pickers and players of all instruments, and venues of varying sizes for them to play…they are all over the place in the Valley. There are amateurs and professionals, teachers and students, the locally renowned and the nationally famous, songpoets and musical craftsmen and craftswomen. And then there is Chris Smither. I’ve written at length about Smither in other entries, including some remarks about his latest recording, Time Stands Still (2009), on my old blog, so I will not take the time to extol his virtues again here. But I was thinking last night on my slow, slushy drive up to Ashfield, how amazing it is that I can hop into my car, drive 30 miles or so, and see one of the greatest living professional songwriter-guitarists perform some of greatest material in an intimate setting. As it happens, this performance was in the midst of a four day workshop that Chris Smither was conducting in town, at the Mighty Albert. A couple dozen or more of his students were in the front rows of the audience last night.

Ashfield, MA is about a 1 hour drive from South Hadley. Last night, it was a bit more, due to the light snow and slippery driving conditions. The drive home, after the snow had stopped, was faster. I had never been there before, and I was delighted by the venue. It was the Ashfield town hall, a beautiful old building, very New England, clearly used quite a bit, given the town's frequent use of open town hall meetings to conduct its public business. The lower level was a wide open space, with plenty of nooks set aside to fill out ballots. There were lots of big file cabinets, old law books on bookshelves embedded in beige walls, boxes of paper that were labeled “for shredding,” and even a beautiful old ballot box, labeled “Perfection,” patented in 1905. For this evening, the open space was devoted to selling cookies and cheesecake and tea and coffee. No food or drink was allowed in the concert space, which was several flights of stairs up, on the top floor, in an auditorium that, I imagine, is used for town meetings.

Chris Smither took the stage at about 5 minutes past 8:00, played an hour set, took a 30 minute break, and played for another hour or so. 22 songs in all, by my count. He opened the concert with the song that he’s been using as his opener for about 5 years now: “Open Up.” His foot tapping was in perfect, toneless harmony with his syncopated finger-picking, as usual, and he was in fine voice. I won’t quote the opening lines, which are as perfect a statement of purpose as I’ve ever heard, because the second couplet struck me like never before. I’m so attached to the opening couplet that the second one seems less essential, but it didn’t last night: “I’m still flying blind, hoping I might find / a way to stop my thinking, and open up my mind.” The entire song moves with a generous groove, a bright melody, and words that deal with the dualities that have defined his songwriting for the past 40 years: heart-mind, body-soul, me-you, life-death (although this particular song only hints at the last one). I’m glad he begins with this one. It’s a song that gathers depth each time I hear it, and it’s a perfect concert opener. From there, he moved on to “Link of Chain,” originally recorded for Up on the Lowdown (1995) and perfected for Live As I’ll Ever Be (1999), which sounded as great as it ever has. I note that, in the Chris Smither Songbook, the songwriter’s own commentary on this song begins as follows: “I originally wanted to call this, ‘The Importance of Being Close While Maintaining Identity,” but decided that it showed a lack of commitment, so it remains a sort of impressionistic paean to living in the moment. Nice groove, though.” Amen to that. Chris Smither has a distinctive sound and a distinctive singing and songwriting style. A voice, that is. From a distance, it is easy to hear the songs blend into one another. With a touch of attention, the great universal themes assert themselves, filtered through melodies that recall Mississippi John Hurt (one of Smither’s earliest inspirations) and in thematic sync with the rhythmic foot-tapping. Eventually, every song, whether an original or a cover, takes on a distinct shape, and each one seems like a piece of a greater whole.

The great man played a first set of music that covered highlights from his most recent three albums. His second set dipped back into some of his older albums although, as usual, he did not play any material from his first two albums, I’m a Stranger Too! (1970) and Don’t It Drag On (1972). The second set also featured performances of other people’s songs. I heard him play Dave Carter’s “Crocodile Man” at Falcon Ridge in the summer of 2002, the very first time I heard him live, and it was lovely to hear him recall meeting Dave at a festival some time before that. His slow, measured version of “Sitting on Top of the World” is coldly ethereal, hinting at hurt and grief that are even deeper that the lyrics suggest. The stolid foot-tapping and the weariness in his singing evoke spiritual fortitude. It was, for me, the emotional high point of the concert, bold and beautiful and oracular. You can find his recording of it on his 1984 album It Ain’t Easy. It is the single best version of that song I have ever heard.

There were easily over 300 people in the audience, perhaps over 400. It was an older audience for the most part, although a few folks brought their children. While there were definitely some fans of Smither’s present, I sensed that a lot of attendees were locals who wanted a night out. There were laughs of delight and recognition when the singer hit keys lines. “Origin of Species” and “Surprise, Surprise” always work. Three songs in, folks laughed so hard at “she says the love ain’t cheap, but the pain is free / and I say, ‘but that sounds good to me!’” that a lot of them missed “she’s got hooks to make a fish think twice,” not to mention “if I think at all, I think this feel nice!” That song, “Lola,” was preceded by a story about having to buy a new GPS, which he’s had to do many times, he explained. Now, he names every GPS he buys, Lola. After telling us that he wrote “I Don’t Know” after writing down his little daughter’s questions and observations about the world, he expressed his suspicion that she was starting to understand that she had a role in writing the song: she’s begun asking for her royalty checks. He seemed pretty amused by his own song, “Get a Better One,” which he sang with a big smile. And “Never Needed It More” and “Time Stands Still” are love songs of maturity and experience, eliciting entirely different kinds of smiles. Meanwhile, there’s nothing funny at all about “No Love Today” or “Drive You Home Again” or “Seems So Real.”

For the encore, he treated us to J. J. Cale’s “Magnolia.” He introduced it by explaining that it’s a song he returns to whenever he’s working on his own songwriting. It’s an example, he said, of how the simplest of songs are often the most effective. And I'll be damned if it wasn't the second best moment of the show. What does it mean, I wonder, that this most brilliant of songwriters moved me the most with performances of songs he didn't write? That this most brilliant of songwriters is in complete control of his talents as a singer, a guitarist, and an interpreter, that's what. I will see him again soon, I hope.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Redbird w/ David Wax Museum @ Memorial Hall, Shelburne Falls, January 1st, 2011

An unexpectedly transcendent few hours of music on New Years' Day, 2011. I drove up to Shelburne Falls expecting a pleasant evening, not a fantastic one, but that's what I got. Jim Olsen was on hand to introduce the performers, the setting was the beautiful old Memorial Hall, and the audience was sold-out...all ingredients that can make live music shine, which it did.

Before Redbird went on, the David Wax Museum played half a dozen songs. I have seen their name on fliers before, but I'd never heard their music, and they damn near stole the show. The applause for each of their songs grew and grew and, when they left the stage, we gave them a standing ovation and called for them to come back. As I learned, these folks--the duo of David Wax and Suz Slezak--won over a Newport Folk Festival audience back in August, and they've been riding high ever since. They've moved to Pioneer Valley, and at least one Valley radio station has picked up one of their songs, "Beatrice," which came third in the set that I heard, and which rang a bell in my head. I'm 98% I've heard it before, if not on the radio, then at some store or other in the Valley. You can listen to it and a couple of others here.

What's the story with them? At first, I thought it was going to be simple pleasures, as in their opening song, "When You are Still," with a lovely melody and a simple, loving lyric. The harmony singing was pretty, and the mood was gentle, and I liked it plenty. But that was no preparation for where the Museum went next. David Wax put down the guitar and picked up a Mexican jarana, and Suz Slezak took up a quijada (donkey jawbone), and they proceeded to play "The Persimmon Tree," whose jaunty rhythm was a tiny miracle. It echoed something that I'm sure has been in my subconscious for years, something that I would have crassly labeled "Mexican music" but has never sounded so good. I've certainly not heard anything like that at a singer-songwriter performance in Pioneer Valley. At least two other songs featured the jarana and jaw bone, and they were magical. I'm not the only one who thought so; the applause was raucous and delighted. There was also a quiet ballad played on the piano, a song called "Jalopy Heart," and some amusing words about the aggressiveness with which they distributed their mailing list to audiences. After that, they proceeded to distribute their mailing list to the audience...rather aggressively, I thought. But it was their revitalization of Mexican folk music that was the real story. I'm checking out the songs I heard Saturday night on iTunes, including "The Persimmon Tree" and "Colas," from their 2009 album Carpenter Bird, and the recordings sound as great as the live performances did, bright, soulful and fun. For an encore, they played the jarana-and-quijada "Yes Maria Yes," a video for which is available on their website. I will keep a lookout for them, and I encourage readers to do the same.

The featured act played as a quartet: Peter Mulvey, Kris Delmhorst, and Jeffrey Foucault, along with David "Goody" Goodrich whose tasty guitar solos generated some heat whenever the mood got a bit too relaxed. They began with Peter Mulvey singing lead on "Lovely as the Day Is Long," a bit of light jazz for which Peter Mulvey's voice is superbly suited. From there, the group played in a kind of round-robin format, with ensemble performances and solo vocals, and occasional harmonies thrown in. There were originals, there were covers, there was even an instrumental, led by Goody, called "Snowed In." The mood was laid-back throughout, but it ranged from laid-back good to laid-back great. At its best, it was either naughty--Jeffrey's "Don't Fuck with My Miller Time," Goody's cover of a Morphine song--or surprising--Kris played a Cars song for an album full of Cars songs she's about to record, and Jeffrey pulled off an excellent version of Tom Waits' "2:19," which I prefer to all the John Prine songs he covers. Kris also did a romantic Ricky Lee Jones song, although I don't know the name of it.

Highlights....I was moved by everything that featured Peter Mulvey, who seems very much in control of his talents. That is, he plays and picks with the confidence of someone comfortable with his place, and his songs are thoughtful and nuanced. He also has excellent stage presence, complete with knowing nods and winks to the audience, and a beautiful smile. His opening vocal on "Lovely as the Day Is Long" was excellent, and so was his new song "Trempealeau." And the the band's second set concluded with his "Sad Sad Sad Sad (and Faraway from Home)," which is studded with great lines. Jeffrey Foucault's best moment was the Tom Waits cover, I thought, but for the encore, they did his "4&20 Blues" from Stripping Cane (2004), and I enjoyed it enough to go back to that album, which I've always thought I ought to like more than I do. And what do you know? I listened to it a couple of nights ago and heard it like never before. The album is very quiet and staid, and it's best listened to late at night, perhaps on long cars rides or when one's waking hours are very nearly over. It's an atmospheric album and, beneath the atmosphere, there are a number of good songs, especially the title track, along with an appropriately downbeat version of John Fogerty's "Lodi." As far as Kris Delmhorst goes, I was happiest with the Cars' song, the Ricky Lee Jones song, and her cello accompaniment with her bandmates' tunes. At one point, after an exchange with Jeffrey, she informed us that there were sometimes arguments as to who gets to sing the Neil Young song. This evening, that was Kris, and the song was "For the Turnstiles, which I heard her and Jeffrey perform at the Iron Horse back in October, as I described here.

Not to take anything away from Kris and Jeffrey--now Shelburne Falls natives who, they mentioned, can see Memorial Hall from their kitchen--but I left thinking most about Peter Mulvey. I saw him open the Saturday afternoon festivities at the Newport Folk Festival in 1997, and I can't really remember the feel of that performance, although I vaguely remember being moved by it. Documentary evidence:

This was around the time an album called Deep Blue was out, and I imagine he was playing songs from it. Maybe it's time to check it out. At any rate, his vocal performances felt very natural and unforced, but still focused. He's really good. Meanwhile, I look forward to Kris' album of Cars covers and to Jeffrey's "Don't Fuck with My Miller Time" recorded with the rocking country band it deserves.